World Science Festival: Reawakening the Brain through Music

Friday marked the second World Science Festival appearance for the renowned neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, M.D. In 2008, Sacks spoke about vision, but this year’s event focused on the multiple applications of music therapy to help treat patients suffering from diseases and disorders including stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Sacks was joined on the panel by Grammy Award-winning musician and music therapy student Stanley Jordan, cognitive neuroscientist Petr Janata, Ph.D., and pioneering music therapist Concetta M. Tomaino, D.A. [Janata and Tomaino have both written articles for the Dana Foundation.] “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl moderated the panel.

Much of the evening focused on Sacks and his work with the “awakenings” patients in the late 60s (documented in his book and in the Robert De Niro movie). Among this group were Parkinson’s patients, severely debilitated by the disease to the point where they couldn’t move or talk for hours at a time. With some helpful insight from the nurses, Sacks found that these patients could be “transformed by music,” synchronizing their movements to the rhythm of a song. In a video for PBS, he explains the connection between music and movement:

[U]niquely in the human brain, at least uniquely among mammals, one finds connections between the auditory parts of the brain and what’s called the dorsal pre-motor cortex, some of the motor parts. And it seems to be this conjunction of auditory and motor, which is so crucial for all of us in responding to music, but especially if you have something like Parkinson’s.

The panel also addressed the well-documented area of music therapy success in Alzheimer’s patients to help with attention and recall. Tomaino explained that to achieve this success, it is important to select songs that have strong autobiographical significance to the patients and to play them repeatedly over time. The recently released documentary film, “Alive Inside,” mentioned by the panel, shows the positive responses that Alzheimer's and dementia patients exhibit when listening to music from their pasts. I highly recommend that you watch the trailer if you haven’t already. It’s quite remarkable and heartwarming.

How does music therapy successfully treat such diverse diseases? The answer lies in the fact that there is no one area of the brain that processes music. Tomaino explained in a 2002 Cerebrum article:

[W]hile a component of music, such as pitch, may be processed in a specific region of the brain, the overall experience of music is a gestalt of perceptual and psychological processes occurring in synchrony and involving a spectrum of neurologic activity and brain regions. 

We now know from clinical case studies that music can affect—in very specific ways—human neurological, psychological, and physical functioning in areas such as learning, processing language, expressing emotion, memory, and physiological and motor responses.

And scientists continue to find additional ways to incorporate music therapy into medical treatments. Last year a German study found that patients who listened to instrumental music before and during surgery exhibited less stress and required less sedation.

But let’s not forget the sheer enjoyment of listening to music that we like. As if to remind us of that pleasure, Friday’s audience was treated to several medleys played by Stanley Jordan, ending with a mood-lifting rendition of “All You Need is Love,” which had the audience and panel clapping in unison and singing along.

–Ann L. Whitman 

One response

  1. I was a little bit excited when I read this, “World Science Festival: Reawakening the Brain through Music”. I remembered our teacher’s advice that if we wanted to have competitive children we should start introducing music made by an instrument. I think it has the connection on reawakening the brain through music.

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