Brain Damage Saved His Music

Five years ago, when neurosurgeon Marcelo Galarza saw images from jazz guitarist Pat Martino’s cerebral MRI, he was astonished. “I couldn’t believe how much of his left temporal lobe had been removed,” he said. Martino had brain surgery in 1980 to remove a tangle of malformed veins and arteries. At the time he was one of the most celebrated guitarists in jazz. Yet few people knew that Martino suffered epileptic seizures, crushing headaches, and depression. Locked in psychiatric wards, he withstood debilitating electroshock therapy.

It wasn’t until 2007 that Martino had an MRI and not until recently that neuroscientists published their analyses of the images. Galarza’s astonishment, like that of medical scientists and music fans, arises from the fact that Martino recovered from surgery with a significant portion of his brain and memory gone, but his guitar skills intact. In a 2014 report in World Neurosurgery, Galarza, of the University Hospital in Murcia, Spain, and colleagues from Europe and the United States, wrote, “To our knowledge, this case study represents the first clinical observation of a patient who exhibited complete recovery from a profound amnesia and regained his previous virtuoso status.”1

Martino is now 70 and has released over 30 albums. He continues to tour around the world and according to many jazz critics and musicians he plays with more felicity and creativity than ever. And in Martino’s case that is really saying something. Since he was a teenager, the guitarist has been known for fleet fingers and surprising improvisations. Grammy Award-winning guitarist George Benson told an interviewer that he saw himself as the young phenom around New York City in the 1960s until he saw Martino play one night in Harlem. “I was flabbergasted, man!” Over the years, Benson said, Martino “stayed on my mind because I knew that there was another standard out there that all guitar players had to recognize, and he was setting it. He showed us that there was much more to the guitar than we were hearing.”

Martino has also put on a show for neuroscientists. His case demonstrates neuroplasticity, the brain’s remarkable ability, during development and learning, to “optimize the functioning of cerebral networks,” wrote Hugues Duffau, a professor and neurosurgeon at Hôpital Gui de Chauliac at Montpellier University Medical Center in France, who studied Martino’s case. The guitarist’s recovery epitomizes the ability of the brain to improvise—to compensate for malformations or injuries by wiring new connections among brain regions that restore motor, intellectual, and emotional functions. For an encore, say neuroscientists

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