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How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain

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Michael Thaut, PhD and Gerald McIntosh, MD, The Dana Foundation

How Music Helps to Heal the Injured Brain

Editor’s note: The use of music in therapy for the brain has evolved rapidly as brain-imaging techniques have revealed the brain’s plasticity—its ability to change—and have identified networks that music activates. Armed with this growing knowledge, doctors and researchers are employing music to retrain the injured brain. Studies by the authors and other researchers have revealed that because music and motor control share circuits, music can improve movement in patients who have suffered a stroke or who have Parkinson’s disease. Research has shown that neurologic music therapy can also help patients with language or cognitive difficulties, and the authors suggest that these techniques should become part of rehabilitative care. Future findings may well indicate that music should be included on the list of therapies for a host of other disorders as well.

The role of music in therapy has gone through some dramatic shifts in the past 15 years, driven by new insights from research into music and brain function. These shifts have not been reflected in public awareness, though, or even among some professionals.

Biomedical researchers have found that music is a highly structured auditory language involving complex perception, cognition, and motor control in the brain, and thus it can effectively be used to retrain and reeducate the injured brain. While the first data showing these results were met with great skepticism and even resistance, over time the consistent accumulation of scientific and clinical research evidence has diminished the doubts. Therapists and physicians use music now in rehabilitation in ways that are not only backed up by clinical research findings but also supported by an understanding of some of the mechanisms of music and brain function. 

Rapid developments in music research have been introduced quickly into neurologic therapy (see sidebar) over the past 10 years. Maybe due to the fast introduction,  the traditional public perception of music as a ‘soft’ addition, a beautiful luxury that cannot really help heal the brain, has not caught up with these scientific developments.

But music can. Evidence-based models of music in therapy have moved from soft science—or no science—to hard science. Neurologic music therapy does meet the standards of evidence-based medicine, and it should be included in standard rehabilitation care.

Where We Started

While the notion that music has healing powers over mind and body has ancient origins, its formal use as therapy emerged in the middle of the 20th century. At that time, music therapists thought of their work as rooted in social science: The art had value as therapy because it performed a variety of social and emotional roles in a society’s culture. In this early therapy, music was used, as it had been through the ages, to foster emotional expression and support; help build personal relationships; create and facilitate positive group behaviors; represent symbolically beliefs and ideas; and support other forms of learning. In the clinic, patients listened to music or played it together with the therapists or other patients to build relationships, promote well-being, express feelings, and interact socially. 

Because early music therapy was built upon these laudable and important but therapeutically narrow concepts, many in health care, including insurers, viewed it as merely an accessory to good therapy. For decades it was difficult to collect scientific evidence that music therapy was working because no one knew what the direct effects of music on the brain were. Now, however, the approaches that are central to brain rehabilitation focus on disease-specific therapeutic effects, demonstrated by rigorous research.

Read entire article.

From The Dana Foundation. © 2010 The Dana Foundation. Used with permission. www.dana.org.

Comments [3]


Feb 23rd, 2015 10:00pm

I have been fighting post concussion syndrome for close to 42 months now. Plagued with vertigo that given me 3 more concussions in that time frame. I have headaches every day since that accident. Music is my only salvation. Not just playing my guitar but also simply listening thru my headphones in a dark room. It has structure as opposed to the chaos of everyday life. Music also cancels out the high frequency tinnitus that makes me nuts. I feel like my body's rhythm moves with the meter of the music, soothing my inner mood shifts. I thought I was crazy when I started telling my family and doctors that with music I seem to be able to stay on a straight path and eliminate my confusion. It probably will never heal the TBI and PCS but music ability to be a coping aid cannot be denied.

Oct 13th, 2014 3:28pm

Great article, one that I can relate to personally. In 2005, I had a ruptured brain aneurysm in the left side of my frontal lobe. I had three vaso spasms and was in a coma for a month. One day, I just woke up and started talking to the nurse. I had a lot of therapy, mostly to improve my short term memory. The one thing that pulled me through it was playing guitar and listening to music.

Jan 22nd, 2013 9:48pm

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