Could music help people with stroke?
My first paper this month comes from a group of Spanish scientists investigating how music could be of benefit to stroke patients. Julia Amengual and his colleagues at the Cognition and Brain Plasticity Group in Barcelona have been looking at a recently-developed rehabilitation technique called Music-Supported Therapy, which has been designed to help stroke-sufferers with their motor skills, ie increasing their control of the muscles in their arms and fingers.
Stroke is caused by starving the brain of oxygen and is typically the result of reduced blood flowing to the brain. The resulting brain damage can have an impact on a variety of brain functions, from deficits in speech and language, to fine motor control. Following a stroke the brain undergoes a prolonged period of re-organisation where parts of the brain attempt to take on the functions of lost parts of the brain, a process often known as cortical plasticity. Previous studies have shown that considerable plasticity is required to regain motor control following stroke but evidence from recent years has suggested that musical training could also have long-term effects on the brain's motor systems.
To test whether a music-based rehabilitation therapy could therefore improve the outcome of stroke patient's motor skills, the researchers of this study assessed Music-Supported Therapy in a group of stroke patients. The therapy involves 20 30-minute music sessions over a four week period. The patients are guided through exercises, playing musical phrases on a keyboard and on an electronic drum pad with their affected hand.
The researchers found that stroke patients undergoing Music-Supported Therapy showed significant improvements in their motor functions, in both the range of their movements and the quality of these movements. Furthermore the scientists also found increased electrical activity in the motor cortex, the part of the brain involved in controlling movements, and a re-organisation of the brain circuits within this area. The study does require some more rigorous controlled repeats but the results seem to show that Music-Supported Therapy is an engaging and fruitful way for stroke patients to retrain their muscles and their brains.