How Science & Music Might Help Patients Speak Again

When former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords arrived at the State of the Union Address in 2012, she did so to a hug from President Obama and the resounding applause of her U.S. House and Senate colleagues. A little over a year before, on January 8, 2011, she was shot in the head in a chaotic rampage that left six dead and 13 injured. Now retired from Congress, Giffords is a gun control advocate. She’s also an advocate for neurologic music therapy (NMT), which she credits with helping her to regain her speech.

As it turns out, we’ve got an NMT champion right here in the Boston area, too. Meet Brian Harris, president and CEO of MedRhythms.

foundermedrhythms

MedRhythms founder Brian Harris has always been a musician. Now he’s using his love of music for (scientifically-backed) good. Photo via medrhythmstherapy.com

A musician and NMT advocate, Harris is making a difference for people like Giffords who struggle to speak, process information, or simply get up and walk. This week, we picked Harris’ brain about using NMT to change lives.

How is NMT different from traditional music therapy?

Traditional music therapy looks at music through a social science model that focuses on wellbeing and quality of life. NMT is a purely neurologically-driven model that looks at music as a brain language. All of our interventions are based on neuroscience and neuroimaging research, as well as standardized interventions to help people with non-musical functions, such as speech and language, cognition, and movement.

Who are you trying to help with this?

We’re helping people with neurological injuries, like those with stroke or traumatic brain injury or Parkinson’s disease.

Personally, I’ve always been a musician and I’ve always had a passion for helping people. The first day that I saw NMT happen, I knew this was my calling in life. I saw its immediate impact with a patient we had worked with for weeks. I see this amazing work and its functional results – these aren’t things I’m just implying, I’m talking about consistent changes in language and walking and memory. We see these things consistently. And all of this can be explained with science. This drives me, it fuels me. This is a real area of work that’s so needed.

The more we find out about how music affects the brain, it’s going to change the landscape of neuro-rehabilitation. It’s going to become an accepted and necessary part of the road to recovery. And I’m traveling across the country to spread the word so that every single person who has a neurological injury can have access to this much-needed care.

How does NMT work for patients?

For a long time, people hypothesized that there was a mechanism in the brain that processed music. What they found out through neurologic imaging is that this was not the case. Instead, music globally activates the brain for non-musical functions. That’s your motor cortex, your motor control, and language; all of these things are activated by music. There’s no other stimulus in the world that has this type of global activation on the brain besides music.

We’re seeing these activations in speech and language regions of the brain. When someone has damage to motor functions due to a brain injury or a stroke or Parkinson’s disease, we can teach the brain a new way to engage the motor system by using music. And there’s a direct correlation between hearing an auditory rhythm and a motor response.

I watched this video with you and one of your patients named Peter:

Peter had suffered from a stroke. At the beginning of the video, he was struggling to say his name. Then I watched you help him say his name. What I saw was amazing. Tell me how that comes together.

In Peter’s case, he had had a stroke on the left hemisphere of his brain – that’s where language is processed. He had no ability to speak, but his comprehension was very good. In the video, you see me tapping his left hand. We know that melody and rhythm are in the right hemisphere of the brain, which controls the left side of the body. By tapping his left hand, I’m literally and tactically engaging the right hemisphere of Peter’s brain.

At first, we see that Peter’s unable to speak. Then, after one session of melodic intonation therapy, we can teach him how to say one to three phrases. We can teach people to say their name or “hello” or “I love you.” That doesn’t mean that they’re “fixed.” We need to continue to see patients to be able to help them develop these capabilities. The standard protocol is one to two hours a day, five to six days a week. Of course, there are financial and other considerations for patients.

What else is MedRhythms up to?

We recently partnered with the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts and the Boston University Aphasia Resource Center to develop an aphasia community chorus. That started in February.

Boston University has had a long-running aphasia program for those who leave the acute hospital setting or rehab. The program helps people with aphasia with language problems and provides a support network. We partnered with the aphasia program because we know that music affects language. We’re just starting it this semester with 25 people; our goal is to bring people into a group setting and incorporate elements of NMT to help them achieve functional recovery. I really hope we’re able to expand this to more people over time.

Aine Cryts

Aine Cryts

    Aine (“ONya”) Cryts is an on-staff contributing writer for MedTech Boston. She's a political scientist by education, a writer and marketer by trade. She has written for various healthcare technology publications and also served as marketing director at several healthcare software companies in the Boston area. Cryts is an avid volunteer, pet lover and long-distance runner. Story ideas are always welcome.

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