Brain Mapping Guides Surgeons In Removal Of Musician's Tumor : Shots - Health News The surgeons tasked with removing a tumor from Dan Fabbio's brain had worked hard not to disrupt his ability to perform music. They rejoiced when he was able to play his sax on the operating table.

This Music Teacher Played His Saxophone While In Brain Surgery

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Imagine that you're a musician.


SIEGEL: And imagine that you discover you have a brain tumor right near the part of your brain that's key to playing your instrument. Well, there's a team of doctors and researchers specializing in this kind of surgery. But there's a catch. They may want you to play your instrument during the operation. With us to explain this is Dr. Web Pilcher and Brad Mahon, who's one of the authors of a new study in Current Biology. Welcome to both of you.

BRAD MAHON: Thank you, Robert.

WEB PILCHER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And that bit of saxophone we heard just now was Dan Fabbio onstage. He had a tumor. The two of you are in Rochester, N.Y., and you were both involved in removing it. First, how long did it take to prep for the surgery? And what did all this involve? Dr. Pilcher?

PILCHER: I think all of this began early before the diagnosis, when this young musician was listening to music and he found that the music, instead of having three-dimensional structure, went from being stereo to mono. Music did not have the same feel. It was almost like he was experiencing an alternate reality. All of that led to an MRI scan. The MRI scan demonstrated a tumor.

And Dr. Mahon and I have put a team together over the years where we have become very expert at mapping spoken language in lawyers, in doctors, in bus drivers and every patient who has a tumor in the spoken language area of the brain. But this tumor was in an area of the brain that has not been studied carefully. And very few awake surgeries have been done where mapping has been employed to try to preserve music function. And so that set the stage for the operation.

SIEGEL: Brad Mahon?

MAHON: So we spent about six months studying Dan. And we did this using various types of MRI to study the functional organization of his brain. And we also studied the structural organization of his brain. And we also partnered with the Eastman School of Music and Dr. Betsy Marvin to develop a series of tasks that could be used during his surgery.

SIEGEL: So this is awake surgery. And that, I gather - that's not that unusual in terms of brain surgery. But what is unusual is asking the patient to play the saxophone during the surgery, which we have a little bit of sound you recorded. Here it is.


SIEGEL: What were you looking for, and what did you find?

PILCHER: If you can imagine yourself lying on your side with the right side of your skull opened and the brain exposed and trying to breathe carefully so that the brain would not protrude out of the skull, that was the condition that Dan Fabbio was in when he played those notes. And he played those notes at the end of the tumor resection, when we knew we were peeling the last fragments of tumor off of the thin strip of brain cortex that was responsible for his music.


DAN FABBIO: (Playing saxophone).


SIEGEL: And so Brad Mahon, what did you learn? What were you seeing going on in Mr. Fabbio's brain as he was playing the saxophone during surgery?

MAHON: Dr. Pilcher had been stimulating Dan's brain while he had been performing a melody repetition task or a sentence repetition task. And music and language interestingly seem to occupy similar regions across the two hemispheres. So there are very prescribed regions in the left hemisphere in most individuals that support language abilities, and pretty much the same regions in the right hemisphere seem to be involved in music abilities.

SIEGEL: Well, back to our saxophonist, Dan Fabbio. Is he doing OK? And does he hear the difference between stereophonic music and mono music? Can he distinguish musical sounds as well as he could before the tumor?

PILCHER: What he described after his surgery for about a month was that music remained monophonic. And in fact, one example he gave was that every day, when he would brush his teeth with an electric toothbrush, he would hear harmonies and pitches in the sound of the electric toothbrush and his brain almost subconsciously would create melodies that would harmonize with the toothbrush. And he noticed for the first few weeks after his surgery that this didn't happen. None of these spontaneous musical events occurred. And one day he was brushing his teeth and suddenly it was back to normal. He heard the harmonics in the toothbrush. And he realized at that point that his brain had recovered completely.

SIEGEL: That's (laughter) - that's an amazing - an amazing landmark of recovery that you've just described, when the music returns to your toothbrush. Dr. Brad Mahon and Dr. Web Pilcher, both of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Thanks for talking with us about this.

MAHON: Thank you, Robert.

PILCHER: Thank you.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.