Teenager Credits Musical Talent to Head Injury

Concussions can "turn on" musical ability, say experts.

November 22, 2013, 11:52 AM

Nov. 23, 2013 — -- A Colorado teenager has made headlines for his musical ability that his family says came to him after he endured a concussion.

Lachlan Connors, a 17-year-old junior in Englewood, Colo., can't get enough of music. His mother, Elsie Hamilton, said she has to work to keep him away from the piano so his homework can get done.

"He plays the piano every chance he gets," said Hamilton. "He's completely in love with the piano. He would play the piano till 12 at night if I let him."

But Connors does not only play the piano. He has also picked up the banjo, ukulele, accordion, mandolin and a host of other instruments.

Connors was not always so musically inclined. As a young child, Hamilton sent him to a piano teacher to take a few lessons. When she asked the teacher if Connors was talented, the teacher replied with a flat "No."

But that changed in the sixth grade, when Connors was knocked out while playing football. Initially Connors thought the blow to his head was not serious, and he kept going to football practice for the next few days.

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But then the boy started to experience feelings of déjà vu and panic that doctors said were epileptic seizures. Additionally, he said he felt nauseated and had difficulty understanding words and speaking. Although Hamilton took Connors to a neurologist, the doctor initially said there was nothing wrong with her son.

But a few days later Connors was in the car with his mother and said, "Something bad has just happened."

"He was hallucinating things like a man with a red beard yelling 'no, no, no,'" said Hamilton. Connors ended up back in the hospital, although doctors could not pinpoint exactly what was triggering the seizures.

After more time in the hospital, Connors began to recover, although he still occasionally experienced seizures.

His doctors barred him from playing any more contact sports.

But Hamilton said soon after Connors gave up sports, she found him at the piano picking out melodies and chords.

"He was making stuff up and it was good," said Hamilton. " He started to play chords and ... as soon as he figured out chords, then he could play."

Connors now spends much of his free time deciphering melodies or teaching himself songs.

"I can't do what Lachlan can do," said Hamilton. "He can pick up an instrument and within five minutes, he's playing it."

While having a concussion unlock a hidden musical ability and affinity might seem far-fetched, experts said it's possible.

Dr. Michael DeGeorgia, director of the Center for Neurocritical Care and a professor of neurology at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, said patients who have certain brain injuries, such as stroke victims, can sometimes develop a sudden artistic ability during their recovery.

DeGeorgia said one hypothesis regarding sudden artistic ability has to do with the frontal lobe, which normally helps control inhibition. DeGeorgia said that if that part of the brain is damaged, it can lead to a "disinhibition" that might result in people discovering an interest in music or art.

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"[With] concussions we're just starting to understand the complexity of it," said DeGeorgia. "We've underestimated the complexity of even minor concussions."

DeGeorgia said that one study of soccer players who'd had multiple concussions found that nerve signals traveled differently throughout their brains after they'd endured many blows to the head.

DeGeorgia described the brain as a complex system of neural circuits. If one circuit is changed by injury, "it will affect the others," said DeGeorgia.

"There's no musical center in the brain. It's very complex and comes from all parts into the brain," said DeGeorgia. "It's possible that subtle changes ... recalibrations in circuits could lead to improvement in musical skills or latent musicality."

Steven Camarata, a professor of psychiatry and of hearing and speech science at Vanderbilt University, said that Connor's young age might have also helped him develop musical ability so quickly after his injury.

"[The brain is] much more flexible than we ever imagined. A kid like this who gets his head hit and has a couple of seizures can excel at something else," said Camarata. "If we didn't have that plasticity we couldn't [recover]. ... From age 3 to adolescence, there's a lot of flexibility in the brain."

For Connors, music has helped him fill the void left when he gave up contact sports, although his mother said he still enjoyed playing the FIFA video game on Xbox.

"We look at it like this, God closed one door and opened a window," said Hamilton. "He got locked out of sports and all of a sudden he had something else that was cool and extraordinary."

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