Stacey Gayle really liked dancehall reggae artist Sean Paul's music, but it turned out one of his popular songs was also triggering her epileptic seizures.
"It was terrible," said Gayle, a 24-year-old New Yorker. "It didn't even have to be that loud."
The seizures were so bad that Gayle recently had part of her brain surgically removed in an effort to control her problem.
Gayle began noticing the connection between the seizures and the music in 2006, when one of Sean Paul's tracks, "Temperature," was popular. One of the first music-induced seizures happened at a cookout where the song was being played, "then it happened at a restaurant," said Gayle.
"She realized her life was going out of control with these seizures happening," said Dr. Ashesh Mehta, the director of epilepsy surgery at Long Island Jewish Medical Center.
Mehta recalled meeting Gayle last February to discuss her condition. When Gayle's mother played '"Temperature" on an mp3 player for her daughter to hear, a music-induced seizure followed.
"It was amazing to me," said Mehta. "We got a seizure when we put her music on."
More than 3 million people in the United States are affected by seizures and epilepsy -- a diagnosis that typically comes when someone has a pattern of repeated seizures.
A number of different sensations can trigger an epileptic seizure, including certain odors, loud noises, touching and flashes of light.
But musicogenic, or music-triggered, seizures are far less common.
"We typically see one or two patients a year who have it," said Dr. Orrin Devinsky, director of the epilepsy center at New York University Medical Center.
There is no one type of music that triggers such reactions. For some, jazz might set off the seizure; for others, rock 'n' roll is the culprit, or country music. And in many cases, it's not the actual sound or rhythm of the music that poses the problem; it's the emotional connection that one has to the song he or she is hearing.
Essentially, the part of the brain that processes music and emotions associated with music can be overlapping with areas of the brain that trigger seizures, explained Devinsky.
For example, one of Devinsky's patients had seizures when she heard a certain type of opera music.
"She grew up in Italy, and Neapolitan operas aroused the strongest emotions in her," said Devinsky.
Getting It Out of Your Head
For Gayle, the seizures started with Sean Paul's music, but they did not end there.
"I was on this boat ride and we told them, 'Don't play Sean Paul,'" but the other hip-hop tracks began to elicit a reaction, said Gayle. "I almost ended up jumping out of the boat."
About 70 percent of people with epilepsy are able to control their seizures through medication. For those who still have seizures or cannot handle the side effects of the medication, doctors then consider brain surgery.
"We did try a number of different anti-seizure medications, but it was clear that her epilepsy was not responding," said Dr. Alan Ettinger, chief of the epilepsy center at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. "In her case, in addition to music setting off the epilepsy, even the very thought of the song started to provoke the seizures."
At her worst, Gayle said she was having four to 10 seizures a day, so her doctors planned two operations in October 2007 to treat her.
In the first procedure, they set out to find the areas of the brain from where the seizures were occurring by placing more than 100 electrodes on the right side of Gayle's brain. They were then able to pinpoint the problems in her temporal lobe by playing the Sean Paul song to set off a seizure.
In the second operation, doctors removed the problematic portions of the brain.
"The prognosis is excellent for her," said Ettinger. "She's been completely seizure-free since the surgery."
In fact, Gayle recently did something she never thought would be possible.
"I went out and bought his CD," she said, referring to the Sean Paul album that carries the song. "Just looking at it made me nervous."