Dutch man has sudden urge to listen to country singer following pattern of localised electrical pulses to his brain
|Johnny Cash. When the electrode batteries died down, the test subject's|
musical tastes returned to normal. Photograph: Marvin Koner/Corbis
Brain implants have had the unexpected and intriguing side effect of causing a 60-year-old Dutch man to develop a sudden and powerful love for the music of Johnny Cash, a new paper reveals.
A case study in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience describes how "Mr B", a married man with a very severe form of obsessive compulsive disorder, developed the urge to listen to the country singer while receiving a form of treatment called deep brain stimulation.
Deep brain stimulation is a procedure by which electrodes are implanted into specific parts of the brain. When these electrodes are connected to an outside battery pack, they send a pattern of localised pulses which act like a pacemaker to regulate activity in that region.
Doctors at the University of Amsterdam implanted the device into Mr B's nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain which processes rewards and pleasurable behaviour – and which, when not functioning correctly, can be the cause of addictive or compulsive disorders.
Within six weeks, it was clear the surgery had been effective. Mr B reported a sharp decline in anxiety and compulsive behaviours. The authors of the case study report note that he began to call himself "'Mr B II,' the new and improved version of himself."
Over the course of the next six months, an unexpected side effect started to emerge. It first happened, according to the report, when Mr B happened to hear the Johnny Cash song Ring of Fire on the radio. "From this moment on," the report says, "Mr B kept listening simply and solely to Johnny Cash and bought all his CDs and DVDs.”
When listening to his favourite songs, the report adds, Mr B felt like he was the hero in a movie, and although he played Johnny Cash songs almost exclusively for the following years, the music never annoyed him.
His favourite songs are Fulsom Prison Blues, Ring of Fire and Sunday Morning Coming Down.
However, when the batteries on the electrode implants run down, Mr B's musical taste returns to what it had been before the surgery: a few Dutch singers, and the Rolling Stones.
Deep brain stimulation has been routinely used to treat Parkinson's since the mid-90s, and was first used for patients with severe OCD by doctors in Belgium in 1998. It is estimated that 100,000 patients worldwide now wear the device.
Dr Ali Rezai, a neurosurgeon who routinely performs deep brain stimulation implants, and also heads up the neuroscience program at Ohio State University, believes that Mr B may always have had the potential to be a Johnny Cash fan, but that it was a predilection that could only emerge when his disorder was being suppressed.
“Whereas before, his severe anxiety meant he was not able to connect with music,” he told the Guardian, “afterwards it could become rewarding for him. His brain wasn't functioning normally before.”
“I don't know why he had a particular predilection for Johnny Cash,” he added. “Maybe it has a certain rhythm.”