Music as Medicine for the Brain
Neurologists like Oliver Sacks are prescribing it for conditions from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to stroke and depression
By Matthew Shulman
By Richard Burrows
Neurological conditions have been treated for decades with music therapy. Brain imaging techniques are able to show us what exactly happens when we listen to music or play instruments. Oliver Sacks states, “It’s been substantiated only in the last year or two that music therapy can help restore the loss of expressive language in patients with aphasia.” Music can also release mood-altering brain chemicals and improve memory.
Neurologists argue that brains respond to highly rhythmic music, in turn this could benefit Parkinson’s and stroke patients. The music is thought to trigger neurons into organized movement. “Someone who is frozen can immediately release and begin walking.”
The coordination for playing music, specifically drumming, also benefits patients. This acts as a therapy for a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, including Parkinson’s. Participants report a greater control of movement; their motion is less shaky.
These group music sessions are proving to be more beneficial than traditional physical therapy.
There is new evidence that shows an area of the brain that processes music overlaps with speech networks. Therapists are able to retrain patients to use existing neuronal pathways and/or create new ones. Concetta Tomaino, cofounder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function states, “As they try to recall words that have a similar contextual meaning to the lyrics, their word retrieval and speech improves.”
Trevor Gibbons, 51, can vouch for the brain's flexibility. A patient at Beth Abraham Rehabilitation Center in the Bronx, where Tomaino heads the music therapy program and where Sacks first began treating chronically ill patients decades ago, Gibbons has been able to restore his speech after suffering a devastating spinal injury from a four-story fall and a stroke in 2000. The former carpenter says that before he began vocal training and playing piano with music therapists at the clinic, he couldn't speak or move and would lie for days in bed, depressed. Following intensive sessions three times a week over several years, Gibbons not only recovered his speech but also has written more than 400 songs, recorded three CDs, and performed at a benefit fundraiser for Beth Abraham at Lincoln Center. (Pre-stroke, says Gibbons, he sang only in his church choir.) His depression has improved, too. "It gave me motivation and a chance to look forward to live another day," he says.
There is new evidence that show an increase in norepinephrine and melatonin, which makes you feel happier. Patients are also reporting improvements in attention and alertness, sociability, and overall functioning following a music therapy treatment. Scientists are suggesting this is due to deep stimulus in the brain in the amygdala and hippocampus. They also note, not everyone will respond, and it may take several sessions to see any effects. She finds that simple relaxation techniques help enhance the effect of “music’s magic.”
This article is well written with solid evidence to back up its claim. They have interviewed key personnel in the area of music neurology and have presented sufficient examples of success. I feel they could have explained a little more about the treatment given to certain patients. This might encourage a sufferer of Parkinson’s or a stroke victim to explore other treatment possibilities.
Music continues to amaze me. I have seen first hand the effects of hand drumming with severe arthritis patients. Elderly people, who couldn’t even hold a pen, were able to write letters to their loved ones after only 20 minutes of drumming. The simple act of movement created blood flow and numbed the pain so that they were able to finally grip a pen.
It seems like I am repeating myself, but I am very excited to see what the future will hold for musicians and therapy. This is certainly not an unknown field, but there is definitely more empirical evidence to prove its validity and benefits for the human race.