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Music can help you recover from stroke and memory disorders

16 Jun 2015

Listening to music and singing could significantly help people suffering from neurological diseases such as stroke and dementia. New research has found that musical leisure activities can enhance motor coordination in stroke patients and people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, improve a patient’s recovery from speech and cognitive disorders after stroke and reduce neuropsychiatric and neurocognitive symptoms in patients suffering from dementia. The results are part of Dr Teppo Särkämö’s research on the use of music in the rehabilitation of age-related brain disorders. Särkämö works at the University of Helsinki as a Postdoctoral Researcher funded by the Academy of Finland.

“Our results show that listening to music in the early stages after stroke has positive effects on cognitive functions up to six months after onset. We observed similar results in people with dementia, for whom singing or listening to music together with caregivers or family members seemed to improve cognitive functioning, mood and memory,” explains Särkämö.

The results suggest that music therapy is an effective way towards improved attention span, better mood, reduced confusion and depression, and enhanced memory. The researchers did not find that the rehabilitative effects of music depended on previous musical activity.

According to Dr Särkämö, the therapeutic effects are based on the extensive ability of music to stimulate and shape the brain. For example, music engages the brain’s reward system, enhances our motor skills and eases stress. Listening to music affects the structure of the recovering brain by inducing neuroplastic changes in the frontal lobe and the limbic areas of the brain (the anterior cingulate gyrus and the ventral striatum). It is these changes that are associated with improved cognitive and emotional recovery. In practice, listening to music increases the volume of these areas in the brain. 

Replace passive idling with systematic music listening

In cases of acute brain damage, chronic sequelae, or slow-progressing brain disorders, actual rehabilitation can even at best be provided only for a fraction of the time a patient is active. Rehabilitation and supportive daily routines usually account for only 30 per cent of a stroke patient’s day in the ward.

Instead of passive rehabilitation, patients could be provided with opportunities to listen to music on a more systematic basis. In the early stages of recovery, as little as one hour of listening to music each day can be enough to improve a patient’s cognitive functions and mental health.

“What we found especially significant was that a patient’s own musical activity can be just as effective as rehabilitation provided by professional therapists in rehabilitating neurological and brain function. As our population ages and as the number of people suffering from cerebrovascular diseases and memory disorders continues to rise, music could help a lot of people improve their functional capacity and quality of life,” says Särkämö.

Although some neurology units in Finland and other countries already do recommend listening to music as a form of rehabilitation to some extent, there is no systematic music-based rehabilitation available. “We still need further research to determine the optimal quality, amount and timing of rehabilitative music,” says Särkämö.

The research is a collaborative project between the Department of Music at the University of Jyväskylä, the departments of neurology of Helsinki and Turku University Hospitals, the HUS Medical Imaging Centre, the Medical Imaging Centre of Southwest Finland, Sibelius Academy, the Miina Sillanpää Foundation, the University of Barcelona, and several dementia care and service units in the Helsinki and Espoo region in Finland. The study trials involve altogether 120 stroke patients and 89 people with memory disorders and their close relatives or caregivers. 

More information

  • Postdoctoral Researcher Teppo Särkämö, University of Helsinki, tel. +358 50 448 4144, teppo.sarkamo(at)helsinki.fi

Academy of Finland Communications
Terhi Loukiainen, Communications Specialist
tel. +358 295 335 068
firstname.lastname(at)aka.fi

Last modified 18 Jun 2015
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