Music as Medicine: How enjoying music can help stroke recovery

Research by Soto et al, 2009 has indicated that listening music can reduce visual neglect in stroke patients. This may seem like a strong claim to make, but the results speak for themselves.

Brain damage as a result of a stroke can lead to impaired visual awareness, usually by ignoring the space on one side of their body, and in severe cases this can also lead to neglecting limbs. This in turn leads to problems interacting with objects in the environment. This is clearly a big problem when related to rehabilitation and recovery after a stroke; if you aren’t paying attention to half of your visual environment, how do you get around in your daily life safely? Simple acts of crossing the road can become a serious problem if you don’t pay attention to any traffic coming from one direction.

In the past 20 years there have been many different suggestions on how to draw patients’ attention back to their neglected side of vision. These include the use of prism glasses, which cause patients’ line of vision to be moved towards the neglected side, and reducing vision on patients ‘good’ side of vision to increase their dependence on the ‘bad’ side. Most methods have shown in some cases to have an effect, but often these take training, time and effort to work, which can often be a problem for recovering patients.

Listening to pleasant music can reduce visual neglect

Soto et al found improvements in patients’ recovery can be achieved quickly and with less effort.  The study involved patients with visual neglect carrying out a number of tasks which, to be completed successfully, required attention to be paid to both sides of vision. Patients performed the tasks whilst listening to either their preferred type of music, a disliked type of music or no music.

Listening to pleasant music has been shown to improve our emotional state. In healthy individuals positive mood has been shown to enhance our ability to solve problems and increase visual attention.

This study showed that listening to a preferred type of music was related to improved performance on all tasks, meaning that patients were using more information from their neglected side of vision than with no music.

When tasks were then performed in an MRI scanner it was clear that listening to preferred music increased neural activity in ‘emotional areas’ of patients’ brains, and this was strongly associated with improved performance on the tasks. This finding suggests that the increased activity in patients’ emotional brain areas also boosts neural activity in areas related to attention processes,  and so increased the levels of attention that patients paid to their neglected side.

This study highlights that patients’ mood after a stroke is important to a successful recovery and that sometimes a simple intervention can be just as effective as training and effort. Hopefully such a simple act of listening to music will lead to better recovery outcomes for stroke patients in the future.

Original article by:

Soto D., et al. (2009) Pleasant music overcomes the loss of awareness in patients with visual neglect. PNAS (in press). Published online 23 March; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0811681106

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