Music Speeds Recovery from Stroke: Study

A daily dose of one’s favorite pop melodies, classical music or jazz can speed recovery from debilitating strokes, according to a study.

When stroke patients in Finland listened to music for a couple of hours each day, verbal memory and attention span improved significantly compared to patients who received no musical stimulation, or who listened only to stories read aloud, the study said.

Those exposed to music also experienced less depression than the other two control groups.

Three months after a stroke, verbal memory was boosted by 60 percent in music listeners, by 18 percent in audio book listeners, and by 29 percent in non-listeners, the lead author Teppo Sarkamo, a neuroscientist at Helsinki University, said.

The differences held true after six months as well, said the study, published in the Oxford University Press journal Brain.

Sarkamo’s findings bolster a growing body of research pointing to the benefits of music and music therapy for conditions including autism, schizophrenia and dementia.

But this is the first time music alone has been shown to have a positive effect on victims of brain injury such as stroke, he said.

“Everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients’ care, especially if other active forms of rehabilitation are not yet feasible,” Sarkamo said.

Sixty victims of left or right hemisphere cerebral artery strokes were randomly divided into the three groups in a single-blind trial between March 2004 and May 2006.

Most of the patients, whose average age was just under 60, had problems with movement, as well as cognitive processes such as memory and focusing their attention.

Every day one group listened to at least two hours of self-selected music, most of it Finnish- or English-language pop. “The idea was to include only music with lyrics the patients could understand,” said Sarkamo.

A second group listened to audio books, and a third to neither.

The 54 patients who completed the study were subjected to a battery of cognitive and psychological tests.

Sarkamo speculates that three mechanisms in the brain account for the startling impact of song and melody.

One is an enhanced arousal of a part of the brain implicated in feelings of pleasure and reward that is stimulated by the release of dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter.

Previous research has shown that increased dopamine enhances alertness, speed of information processing, attention, and memory in healthy humans.

Music also directly stimulates the damaged areas of the brain, as well as the more general mechanisms related to “brain plasticity,” the ability of the brain to repair and renew its neural networks after damage.

Sarkamo cautioned that his findings should be replicated by other larger-scale clinical trials before music is systematically integrated into the recovery regimen of stroke patients.

And music listening may not work for all stroke victims, he cautioned.

But if validated, the study points to an easy and cost-effective therapy for recovering stroke patients.

“Stroke patients typically spend about three-quarters of their time each day in non-therapeutic activities, mostly in their rooms, inactive and without interaction,” Sarkamo said.

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