Sunday May 15, 2016

Waking up the brain with sound

In early May of 2016, The University of Toronto held an event called Sounds of science: Music, technology, medicine.

In early May of 2016, The University of Toronto held an event called Sounds of science: Music, technology, medicine. (utoronto.ca)

Music brings us pleasure, it can be a portal to deep emotion or spiritual experience. But can it be a technology for healing? Recently, the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto held an event called Sounds of science: Music, technology, medicine.

The event highlighted some of the projects by the Music and Health Research Collaboratory, looking at how music and sound can be used in rehabilitation, and to treat even serious neurological disorders such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons.

We saw people on average gain 12 per cent on the total Alzheimer's test. That's enough to move them from a medium level of Alzheimer's to mild, or from mild back to normal.  - Lee Bartel

Lee Bartel is a professor in the music faculty. One of the most exciting areas of research is the potential in using low frequency vibrations (40 hertz) to treat Alzheimer's. That gamma range frequency is the same frequency that's involved in what's called intra-brain communication.

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Dr. Lee Bartel explains how sound can be used to treat a range of health problems such as Alzheimer's. (Jeremy Sale)

"So for one part of the brain to communicate with another part of the brain, like the short term memory to the long term memory, that happens probably at 40 hertz," Bartel explains. "People with Alzheimer's have decreased power in the 40 hertz area". This likely means there is less "writing to long term memory," he says.

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The chair used to deliver 40 hz vibrations to people with Alzheimer's via subwoofers.

In research, they have experimented with having Alzheimer's patients sit in a special chair equipped with subwoofers. It's early days, but the results have been promising. After 6 sessions of 30 minutes "we saw people on average gain 12 per cent on the total Alzheimer's test," Bartel says "that's enough to move them from a medium level of Alzheimer's to mild, or from mild back to normal."

The use of this kind of vibro-acoustic therapy isn't new, but the connection to brain wave activity is. While the research is still ongoing, the assumption is that the therapy would need to be ongoing.

Michael Thaut is the director of the Collaboratory. He demonstrated some of the ways music can be used in rehabilitation, for instance in a patient with aphasia, a condition that causes problems with speech, often due to a stroke. He showed how a patient was able to sing words that he was otherwise unable to say.

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Michael Thaut discusses the use of music in rehabilitation for people with neurological problems. (Jeremy Sale)

"The mechanism is that the left side of his brain - that pathway - is destroyed because of the stroke," Thaut explains "but when we sing then we can transfer the speech network to the right side of the brain, and that's the healthy side." With repeated training over weeks, people can start to speak without having to sing the words.

These therapies rely on the brain's neuroplasticity: the fact that the brain can respond to stimuli and develop new neural pathways.

"Neuroplasticity in the brain can only be accessed through active training and learning. You can't sit in a chair and think that things are going to change," Thaut explains.


UPDATE: During the course of our radio interview, also posted above, Dr. Bartel referred to a commercially available device that one of the participants in the broader study used on her own for several years, with apparently successful results. At the time, Spark was not aware that Dr. Bartel had at one time been a paid consultant for the device maker, and that he continues to receive music license fees and endorsement royalty amounts. As Dr. Bartel himself noted in the interview, this case involved one patient, and was not scientifically controlled.