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

Russell Cobb
Getty Images/Ikon Images

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.

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.

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 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.