Music Therapy – How Does It Benefit Patients?

This week I watched an inspiring presentation about the potential benefits of music therapy for people, who have been affected by brain injury or neurological disease.

The presentation was by an organisation called Chroma. Chroma provides music therapy services for patients with neurological and spinal cord injuries across the UK. I was particularly interested to learn about “neurologic music therapy” and how music can be used to help injured patients with their rehabilitation. This therapy can be used for people who have cognitive, sensory, and motor function deficits related to neurologic disease.

I studied neuroscience alongside law at university and have always been particularly interested by anything “brain related”. It was a (very) long time ago and inevitably science has come on leaps and bounds since then, but I remember learning about the concept of “neuroplasticity” and the idea that the human brain is able to change and adapt throughout its lifetime. Music therapy, as I understand it, can be used to encourage and promote this plasticity in the brain.

Brain or neurological injury can damage or disrupt neural networks in the brain, causing significant impairment. Plasticity involves the creation of new neural pathways and rehabilitation can be designed to promote this activity, which plays a part in helping people overcome impairments due to brain injury.

So How Does Music Therapy Help?

Listening to music involves several areas of the brain, as does learning to play an instrument. These activities may help to strengthen connections between neural networks in the brain and improve the brain’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment.

For example, if a patient is working on improving their gait, they can be encouraged to move to a particular rhythm. This has been shown to improve walking speed and distance in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Benefits have also been seen in stroke patients. I am sure that most people will be able to relate to the impulse to move in sync to a beat, even those non-dancers!

In addition, the enjoyment of listening to music, or playing an instrument, may also have an effect. This can release dopamine (a “feel good” neurotransmitter), which can have a positive effect on neural connections in the brain. It also plays an important part in learning and the brain’s motivation/reward systems. All key in forming and strengthening neural connections.

Brain and neurological injuries can have such a devastating impact on someone’s life and it is incredible to think that music could make such a functional difference here. It has certainly renewed my appreciation for music in general, although perhaps not for all genres!