Seeing What Isn't There: Inside Alzheimer's Hallucinations

May 30, 2015
Originally published on June 1, 2015 4:57 pm

In this episode of NPR's series Inside Alzheimer's, we hear from Greg O'Brien about his struggle to deal with the hallucinations that are an increasing part of his illness. O'Brien, a longtime journalist in Cape Cod, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009.

Greg O'Brien sees things that he knows aren't there, and these visual disturbances are becoming more frequent. That's not uncommon; up to 50 percent of people who have Alzheimer's disease experience hallucinations, delusions or psychotic symptoms, recent research suggests.

At first, he just saw spider-like forms floating in his peripheral vision, O'Brien says. "They move in platoons."

But in the last year or so, the hallucinations have been more varied, and often more disturbing. A lion. A bird. Sprays of blood among the spiders. Over the past five months, O'Brien has turned on an audio recorder when the hallucinations start, in hopes of giving NPR listeners insight into what Alzheimer's feels like.

For now, he says, "I'm able to function. But I fear the day, which I know will come, when I can't."


Interview Highlights

The Lion

March 17, 2015

[It's] St. Patrick's Day, about 9 o'clock in the morning in my office, and they're coming again. Those hallucinations. Those things that just come into the mind when the mind plays games.

Today I'm just seeing this thing in front of me. It looks like a lion, almost looks like something you'd see in The Lion King, and there are birds above it. It's floating, and it disintegrates ... it disintegrates ... it disintegrates.

This time it's somewhat playful, but a lot of times it isn't. There are times when you sense it coming on. It's like a numbing sensation, a tingling in the back of your brain.

The Spiders

April 4, 2015

Oh [no], here they come again those ... spiders. I can't seem to shake them. It's about close to 10 o'clock in the morning and I see these freaking things again.

They're insect-like. They're spider-like. They have stringy, hairy legs. They crawl. They're crawling along the top of the ceiling toward me, now walking into the bedroom, into the living room to see if I can escape.

The Bird

Recently, I woke up in the morning — wide awake — and there was a bird flying in my bedroom. And I see this bird flying, and I'm saying how the hell do I get the bird out of here?

And then I see the bird flying in tighter and tighter and tighter circles. And all of a sudden the bird — beak first — it darted almost in a suicide mission, exploding into my heart.

Then I realized it wasn't real.


Greg O'Brien and his family will share more of their experiences with Alzheimer's in coming installments of "Inside Alzheimer's" on Weekend All Things Considered, and here on Shots.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

In 2009, Greg O'Brien was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. For months, Greg has been recording his daily life with the disease and sharing his experience with us. Today, he takes us inside an aspect of Alzheimer's we rarely hear about - the disturbing hallucinations that often accompany memory loss. More and more, Greg O'Brien has been seeing things that aren't there. And sometimes when that happens, he turns on a tape recorder. Here's Greg.

GREG O'BRIEN: St. Patrick's Day, about 9 o'clock in the morning in my office, and they're coming again - those hallucinations - those things that just come into the mind when the mind plays games. But today, I'm just seeing this thing in front of me. It looks like - it looks like a lion, almost looks like something you'd see in "The Lion King." And there are birds above it. And it's floating and it disintegrates. It disintegrates and it disintegrates. This time it's somewhat playful, but a lot of the times it isn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: There are times when you sense it coming on.

Oh, s*** here they come again those f****** spiders.

It's like a numbing sensation, a tingling - I can't seem to shake them - in the back of your brain. It's about close to 10 o'clock in the morning and I'm - I see these freaking things again. They're insect-like. They're spider-like. They have stringy, hairy legs. They crawl - they're crawling along the top of the ceiling toward me and now walking into - from the bedroom into the living room - see if I can escape.

I've talked to people about it, some medical people, and they say that's just - you abused the reserve in your brain and your brain is shutting down now 'cause it can't take any - it can't take on anymore voltage, so there's going to be a brownout.

It's morning time, and it's time to take my pills.

Recently, I woke up in the morning wide-awake, and there was a bird flying in my bedroom.

I call them my smart pills 'cause they - they're supposed to make me smart, but - and on other days when I don't feel smart. Let's see if I can open this. Damn, they make these things so you can't freaking open them. I suppose I'm like a kid, so I need a kid lock.

And I see this bird flying and I'm saying how the hell do I get the bird out of here? And then I see the bird flying in tighter and tighter and tighter circles.

And I take two of these pills a day. Woops, I just dropped it in the freaking sink. That's not good. If my dog picks it up she'll be smarter than me.

And all of a sudden the bird - beak first - it darted almost in a suicide mission exploding into my heart. And then I realized it wasn't real.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'BRIEN: I don't know. It - it's crawling spiders, freaking things creep along the wall. And now they're floating in packs toward me. Damn it, this has got to stop. I'm able to control this now 'cause I got a sense of when it's going to happen. I'm able to function. But I fear the day, which I know will come, when I can't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Greg O'Brien's memoir is "On Pluto: Inside The Mind Of Alzheimer's." You can hear previous stories from the series Inside Alzheimer's and read more about Greg O'Brien at our website npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.