Complex visual hallucinations in the visually impaired: the Charles Bonnet Syndrome

Surv Ophthalmol. 2003 Jan-Feb;48(1):58-72. doi: 10.1016/s0039-6257(02)00414-9.


Visually impaired patients may experience complex visual hallucinations, a condition known as the Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Patients usually possess insight into the unreality of their visual experiences, which are commonly pleasant but may sometimes cause distress. The hallucinations consist of well-defined, organized, and clear images over which the subject has little control. It is believed that they represent release phenomena due to de-afferentation of the visual association areas of the cerebral cortex, leading to a form of phantom vision. Cognitive defects, social isolation, and sensory deprivation have also been implicated in the etiology of this condition. This condition, which is most common in the elderly, frequently goes unrecognized in clinical practice, due to both lack of awareness among doctors and patients' reluctance to admit to hallucinatory experiences, for fear of being labeled mentally unstable. Furthermore, patients who comprehend the unreality of their hallucinations may be distressed by the real fear of imminent insanity. Sensitive and sympathetic history taking is essential to ascertain the existence of hallucinations. Reassurance and explanation that the visions are benign and do not signify mental illness have a powerful therapeutic effect. Hallucinatory activity may terminate spontaneously, on improving visual function or on addressing social isolation. There is no universally effective drug treatment but anticonvulsants may play a limited role in aborting the hallucinations. Physician awareness and empathy are the cornerstones of management.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use
  • Blindness / complications*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Hallucinations / diagnosis
  • Hallucinations / drug therapy
  • Hallucinations / epidemiology
  • Hallucinations / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Syndrome
  • Visually Impaired Persons*


  • Anticonvulsants