Tuesday, December 30, 2008

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
Posted July 17, 2008
at health.usnews.com


Oliver Sacks, a noted neurologist and professor at Columbia University, who explored the link between music and the brain in his book Musicophilia, says music can not only improve movement and speech in patients who have suffered the loss of these, but also trigger the release of mood-altering brain chemicals and help to recover once-lost memories and emotions.

Because the human nervous system has the unique tendency to go into "foot-tapping mode", the brain naturally responds to highly rhythmic music. This innate response benefits Parkinson's and stroke patients helping to initiate movement and to encourage more smooth movement, says Concetta Tomaino, cofounder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York City.

Rick Bausman is a musician who founded and directs the Drum Workshop in Martha's Vineyard. He reports that after playing in his drumming workshops, participants have increased control over their physical movement, becoming more fluid in their movements and shaking less.

Research shows that Parkinson's patients who received music therapy in group improvisation sessions experienced a more significant improvement in motor control than those receiving traditional physical therapy. The positive effects tapered off after two months if the music therapy was discontinued.

When a stroke has damaged speech control centres in the left brain, "melodic intonation therapy", or singing song lyrics, can help to transfer existing neuron pathways or create new ones in the right brain. Singing existing lyrics can progress to speaking the lyrics and to creating new lyrics with similar meanings, thus aiding in the recovery of word retrieval and speech through the use of music. The case of a man whose speech was lost after a fall and a stroke was cited. Through music therapy, Trevor Gibbons, was not only been able to recover his speech and discover a talent for song-writing, but had his
depression alleviated as well.

Research at the University of Miami's School of Medicine in 1999 into the effect of music on establishing more positive moods, indicates that music increases the production of the neurotransmitters norepiniphrine and melatonin. A Spanish study showed that listening to music prior to surgery decreased anxiety, heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as much as the anti-anxiety drug diazepam. A 2006 study showed that after listening to music, anxiety levels were reduced in Alzheimer's patients. They then experienced enhanced memory recall and were able to communicate better. It is suspected that music stimulates areas deep within the amygdala and the hippocampus where emotion and long-term memory are processed. Both of these areas are less prone to the degenerative effects of Alzheimer's than the outer cortex, the centre of complex thought. Music Therapist Suzanne Hanser cautions that not all patients will respond and in those that do, it may take multiple sessions to see any effects.


With the body of research being done that shows such positive physical and psychological effects of music therapy, one would hope that health care facilities will be spending more money to hire trained music therapists. If patients can recover lost mobility and deal with pain, loss of memory and speech while experiencing a reduction in levels of stress and anxiety, all without the use of drugs, it seems like a win-win situation all around.

I would expect to see more music therapy training facilities emerging as a result of current research. It seems a shame to think that many people in chronic care facilities are not presently being offered music therapy and that their quality of life could be greatly enhanced if the therapy were more universally available.

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