Man somehow plays sax solo following brain surgery, for science

When 25-year-old Dan Fabbio was diagnosed with a brain tumor a couple of years ago, there was an added complication: The tumor was located in the part of his brain that’s responsible for music function. Fabbio’s job? Working as a music teacher in a school in New Hartford, New York. This began a cutting-edge research project involving Fabbio and a number of physicians and surgeons — with the goal of not only carrying out brain surgery to remove the tumor, but doing so in a way that was not going to negatively impact Fabbio’s musical abilities.

This meant designing a series of fMRI experiments that could be used, in the words of the investigators, “to map music in Dan’s brain.”

“Our goal in the Translational Brain Mapping Program is to carefully map each patient’s brain who comes to URMC for surgery,” Professor Bradford Mahon of the University of Rochester Medical Center told Digital Trends. “This type of personalized brain mapping is important because, while everyone’s brain is organized in more or less the same way, there is inter-individual variability in the precise location of specific functions. Furthermore, we look at the broader life of each patient who comes through our program, with the goal of preserving the humanity of each patient. If a patient is a musician, we are going to look closely at music processing; as another example, we have carried out ‘mathematics mapping’ in a math professor and in an accountant. We have mapped the ability to move the hands and use tools in a craftsman. Our goal is to provide the very best neurosurgical care to each patient while ensuring that when the patient leaves the hospital, they can go back to work, go back to their family, and go back to the things that they are passionate about.”

In the case of Fabbio, the information the team gathered was used to create a detailed 3D map of his brain — including notes on both the exact tumor location and music function. This was then used to guide the surgeons while they were operating, during which Fabbio was awake and repeating humming and language exercises he had learned before the surgery. This allowed the surgeons to know whether they were potentially disrupting a part of the brain associated with music processing.

After the operation was finished, Fabbio demonstrated its success by playing his saxophone in the operating room — causing the room to erupt in applause. He is now recovered and back to teaching music.

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Current Biology.