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Music Therapy Improves Brain Function

Listening to music stimulates the brain and the body-mind connection and can reactivate speech centers of the brain, prompt memory and improve gait and coordination. Owing to the strength of the research evidence, clinical training is now being offered to teach specialists how to use music therapy, according to Robin L. Brey, MD, editor in chief of Neurology Now (November–December 2006 issue).

Studies show that music therapy, pioneered by Oliver Sacks, MD, and popularized in the movie Awakenings, helps to treat patients with neurological conditions by stimulating the brain to change. More and more studies are substantiating that the brain has tremendous potential for recovery. “In part,” Brey says, “[that’s] because the brain is a very large and complicated network with the potential for rewiring. And if the connections to one area are damaged due to neurological diseases, then other connections can be coaxed into play—sometimes in pretty creative ways.”

Music therapy works by stimulating parts of the brain that are associated with music, explains Concetta Tomaino, director of Beth Abraham Hospital’s Institute for Music and Neurological Function, a center that integrates neurological, rehabilitative and music–brain research. For example, in a person with Alzheimer’s disease, the section of the brain that allows direct recall of memories is damaged. Musical memories, however, are associated not only with the music itself but also with the circumstances surrounding the musical experience. Listening to music, therefore, can indirectly stimulate the recall of memory fragments that otherwise could not be retrieved. The ability to retrieve some memories can be comforting to people with dementia.

In a different manner, music therapy can assist those with Parkinson’s disease. In a person with Parkinson’s, the part of the brain that organizes thoughts and movements into action is damaged. Music with a strong, rhythmic beat can stimulate motor control, movement and coordination. Studies show that gait training that uses music improves walking speed and coordination for people with Parkinson’s.

Brey reminds us that music can also have a beneficial influence on healthy brains. For more information about music therapy and music’s power to
stimulate the brain, see www.bethabe.org/music_

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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