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Medicinal Music: Stroke Recovery

May 2, 2019

 

 

Last week, we talked about a study suggesting that listening to a Bach sonata boosts the effectiveness of a painkiller. Today, it’s more good news for music fans: we’ll be looking at how the simple activity of listening to songs helps those recovering from a stroke.

 

The connection between the nebulously defined “music therapy” and stroke recovery is not new. In 2008, Finnish music therapist Anita Forsblom teamed up with Teppo Särkämö of the University of Helsinki for an experiment involving 60 stroke patients. One third were asked to listen to music every day, another third was assigned daily audio book consumption, and the final third served as the control group. Both the music group and the audio book group got to choose what they’d listen to, and all three groups otherwise received standard stroke rehabilitation care.

 

To measure their relative progress, the subjects were tasked with filling out a wide range of cognitive tests and a mood assessment at one week, three months, and six months into the experiment. Of the 54 individuals who completed the experiment, the music group scored significantly better on the cognitive tasks, showing better concentration and memory, as well as less confusion and depression. And of course, this is especially good news considering that this form of therapy is basically free, has no evident side effects, and is considered an enjoyable activity.

 

Still, that was one trial performed more than ten years ago. How well does it hold up? Recently, researchers in the UK recruited 72 stroke survivors from acute stroke units, once again randomly dividing them into three groups. One group listened to audiobooks, one group listened to music, and one group combined music-listening with some basic mindfulness training. Once again, all the subjects could choose their own audiobooks or music. All three groups were told to listen for an hour a day for an eight-week period following their release from the hospital.

 

The study measured each person’s cognitive abilities and mood immediately after the stroke, and at three and six months later. The patient was also interviewed at the end of the eight-week listening period, for personal impressions.

 

In interviews, the mindfulness and music group reported that the exercises helped with concentration and mood, while both music groups said listening to music helped stimulate memories of the past. The higher reported mood of the mindfulness and music patients didn’t actually hold true across the later assessment tests, but both groups who listened to music scored better than the audiobook people with regards to recovering memory functions. Interestingly, the fact that people were allowed to select their own music suggests it's how the brain interacts with songs you like, and not about the inherent power of, say, Mozart.

 

“We’re very keen to investigate the potential benefit of mindful music listening in a larger study,” says Professor and lead investigator Jonathan Evans. “We also want to examine whether music listening – with or without mindfulness – could be used even earlier, in inpatient hospital settings.”

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