Music Teacher Contributes to Neurological Research in Rochester

Mike Lawson • News • August 30, 2017

Share This:

Data from the case of Dan Fabbio, a music teacher who suffered from brain cancer, has helped more precisely define the relation between the different parts of the brain that are responsible for music and language processing.

Fabbio was first diagnosed with cancer in 2015 when he was working as a substitute music teacher in a school in New Hartford, New York.

“I was 25 at the time and I don’t think there is any age when it is OK to hear that,” Fabbio said. “I had never had any health problems before and the first thing my mind went to was cancer.”

Fabbio was referred to UR Medicine’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and neurosurgeon Web Pilcher, M.D., Ph.D.

Pilcher, who is the Ernest and Thelma Del Monte Distinguished Professor of Neuromedicine and Chair of Department of Neurosurgery, had partnered with Brad Mahon, Ph.D., an associate professor in the University of Rochester Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. The two developed a Translational Brain Mapping program for patients who had to undergo surgery to remove tumors and control seizures, and went on to use this program with Fabbio.

The two developed a series of cognitive musical tests that Fabbio could perform while the researchers were scanning his brain, such as listening to and humming back a series of short melodies and performing language tasks that required him to identify objects and repeat sentences. By doing this, researchers were able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are important for music and language processing.

Ultimately, the team attempted to see if Fabbio could play his saxophone during the procedure. Once the tumor had been removed, he was brought his saxophone, and amazingly, was able to play. 

“The whole episode struck me as quite staggering that a music theorist could stand in an operating room and somehow be a consultant to brain surgeons,” said Marvin. “In fact, it turned out to be one of the most amazing days of my life because if felt like all of my training was suddenly changing someone’s life and allowing this young man to retain his musical abilities.”

Fabbio has since completely recovered and returned to teaching music.

“As I think back about Dan’s case and about the incredible outcome and what we were able to achieve, it reminds me of how far we have come,” said Pilcher. “Ten years ago, we mapped the brain using very simple tools – electrical stimulation and image guidance. But now, we have all the tools of cognitive science. We have brought the cognitive science laboratory into the operating room and now almost as a matter of course with every single patient.” 

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!