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Charles Bonnet Syndrome


Seeing a squirrel running through the house, young children floating in the air above you, and doll heads appearing on a wall were some of the hallucinations that participants in our April 4 workshop on Charles Bonnet Syndrome reported having.

Led by Dr. Helene Bradley, the presentation focused on the causes, symptoms, and treatments for this disease that primarily affects older adults who have a loss of central vision.

According to Dr. Bradley “when people lose their sight, their brains are not receiving as many pictures as it used to and sometimes new fantasy pictures or old images stored in our brains are released and experienced as though they were actually seen.”

While these hallucinations can happen at almost any time, she said that commonly they occur when there is not much going on, “for example when people are sitting alone and in a place that is quiet and familiar to them.”

The hallucinations usually start suddenly and last for only a few seconds up to a minute or two. The images are generally quite vivid and could be as simple as just shapes or as complex as images of animals, buildings, or scenes. Many times the images are smaller than their normal size and are sometimes superimposed on top of what is actually being seen.

While the reported incidence of the condition is fairly low, the statistics may be skewed by the fact that some people who experience Charles Bonnet Syndrome don’t report it to their doctor.

However, Dr. Bradley emphasized the importance of telling your doctor if you are experiencing hallucinations as they could be a symptom of a more serious problem like dementia, delirium, schizophrenia, or other condition that may require further diagnosis and treatment.

Luckily, for most people Charles Bonnet Syndrome tends to go away on its own after twelve to eighteen months.

When encountering a hallucination, Dr. Bradley suggested blinking your eyes, moving your eyes from side to side or up and down, or changing what you are doing. For example, if you are sitting, stand; if you are in the dark, turn on a light; or change the visual stimulation by turning on the television or looking out the window. “What you are seeing is not real, so you have to reset your brain by providing other stimulation to make the images go away.”

Several workshop clients shared their own experiences with Charles Bonnet Syndrome including Doreen who thought she saw doll heads coming out of the wallpaper while facing a wall and Shirley who thought she saw a squirrel sitting in her kitchen.