Singing, playing an instrument, or listening to music has been shown to activate many areas of the brain that control speech, movement and cognition, memory and emotions – often simultaneously. Some work even suggests that music could help develop, physically, brain matter, which could help the brain repair itself.

More intriguingly, music is also found to have an impact in cases where the brain is not functioning as it should. For example, studies show that in people with Alzheimer’s disease, music can often elicit a reaction, helping patients access memories that seemed lost. There is also evidence that patients with brain damage who have lost the ability to speak can still sing when listening to music.

Music is already used during certain therapies, in the case of Alzheimer’s disease for example (here, at the Copper Ridge Care Center, Maryland, United States). Saul Loeb / AFP

Given the potency of this effect, researchers are studying whether it can be used to treat many different neurological diseases, such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease, or brain damage. One of these treatments currently under study is neurological music therapy or neuromusicotherapy.

Talk, walk, think

This type of therapy has already shown promise in helping stroke victims regain speech, improve walking, and recover physical movements better than other standard therapies.

Other types of effects could also be considered. For example, teams have sought to find out whether neurological music therapy could treat certain movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. Most of the studies in this area have used a technique called rhythmic training exercises, which involve the brain’s ability to subconsciously synchronize with a rhythm – for example, by walking at the specific speed of music.

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Compared to therapy without music, neuromusicotherapy has been shown to improve walking well and reduce “freezing” times (a temporary and involuntary inability to move) in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Could people with head trauma or Huntington’s disease also benefit from improving their cognitive impairment?

For these types of conditions, neurological music therapy focuses on activating and stimulating areas of the brain that may have been damaged, such as the prefrontal cortex (the area of ​​the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, problem solving and self-control). This may involve the patient switching from one type of musical instrument to another when they hear a change in the music they are accompanying (for example, the tempo becomes faster or slower).

Again, one study found that these types of activities improved focus and attention in patients with traumatic brain injury. This positively impacted their well-being and reduced feelings of depression or anxiety.

The beginnings of an explanation

Neuromusicotherapy is thought to work because music can simultaneously activate and simulate a large number of different parts of the brain. However, in patients with neurological disorders, it is often the brain connections that are the problem, rather than a specific area. Research shows that music can form new connections in the brain in unique ways.

Brain by MRI
By activating several brain areas simultaneously, music has a unique effect on our brain. Aitor Guitarte Somosmedicina / Flickr, CC BY

Listening to music also improves neural repair better than other activities – like listening to an audiobook – which can mean the brain is functioning better and making new connections.

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Music is also said to have lasting effects on the brain. So much so that a musician’s brain is actually better connected than that of people who haven’t played music. This could be important for people with neurological conditions, as music could help repair damaged connections over time.

This multiple activation could explain why neuromusicotherapy gives better results than other standard therapies alone. Since many neurological conditions affect connections in the brain, the ability of music to stimulate multiple areas simultaneously could help bypass problematic connections and create new ones … which may help overcome or improve symptoms. to manage.

Although more research is still needed before this therapeutic approach is used on a large scale in healthcare systems, these early results show how promising it is. Research is also underway to determine if it can be used to help people with age-related illnesses, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately, research confirms the value of music therapy in general healthcare practice.

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