MANKATO — It’s not everyday a doctor comes across a patient whose story becomes national news.
But that’s what happened with Dr. Andrew Reeves, a neurologist with Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
Reeves appeared on NBC’s TODAY show recently to talk about a most unusual patient, Derek Amato of Madison, Wis.
Why was Reeves talking about someone not from our area?
Reeves has served as a medical expert for a Science Channel program called “Ingenious Minds.” The show features people who have unusual, savant-level brain function.
As the expert, it’s Reeves’ job to explain to viewers why some people’s brains behave the way they do. But in Amato’s case, not even Reeves, nor anyone else, knows for sure.
Here’s the short version of Amato’s story.
He was having a good time with some buddies when, while playing that game where you jump into a pool while trying to catch a football, he made the catch and went crashing into the water. Except, Amato’s skull didn’t stop in the water. It stopped when it hit the floor of the pool.
He emerged from the water stunned and wobbly. Friends took him to the hospital where he wound up staying for several days.
When he left, he was feeling good enough to walk around, but there was something odd. Geometric shapes raced through his mind. And he had an inexplicable urge to play the piano.
A few days later, while at another friend’s house, he sat down at a piano. And even though he’d never played piano before, his hands floated across the keys like he’d done it thousands of times before, and the music? Miraculous.
His story landed him on “Ingenious Minds.” To film the episode, the show paid for Amato to come to Mankato where Reeves did a full work up and medical history. He put him through several tests, including an MRI.
All of this was done in the presence of television program cameras, lights and microphones.
Reeves said his involvement with the show began when his phone rang one day. It was a production company laying the groundwork for a new show and they needed a neurologist. Reeves said yes, and ended up appearing in four of the show’s eight episodes.
But what about Amato? What could possibly happen in the brain that would result in a someone acquiring a specific skill that most people spend years trying to perfect?
“Therein lies the rarity and the mystery of this,” Reeves said.
According to Reeves and the general medical consensus on this, Amato went through one of two phenomenon. The blow to his head either caused neurological damage to such a degree that circuits were rewired to create this musical ability, or the blow essentially woke up an ability that was dormant.
Reeves believes it might be a little bit of both.
Amato also happens to have something called synesthesia, a disorder where numbers also carry color associations in the brain, or they may associate sounds with color.
Amato has a version of this.
“The injuries allowed it to blossom in a pretty vocal and irrepressible way,” Reeves said. But there is a downside: “He can’t turn it off. The breaks on the car were damaged.”
So all day long, Amato is tapping his fingers on the dinner table or on his neck. He sees the shapes in his dreams.
While Reeves might have his theories, he’s still in the dark about some of this.
“These cases are difficult to study because there aren’t a hundred Dereks in the world,” Reeves said. “Most savants are born, or have an early life brain event or injury.”
Amato’s case is extremely rare. Reeves said there might be 100 acquired savants in the country (people whose unusual brain function was triggered by trauma or other odd events.) He knows of no others, however, that resulted in sudden music mastery.