Could Music Be the Next Great Cure?

June 26, 2010 06:33 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
The U.S. may approve an intensified form of music therapy for various conditions, including hypertension, as early as next year.

Timing a Crucial Part of the Program

Billed as “musical pharmacology,” the treatment aims to bring out the “active ingredients” in music and then formulate them “into medicinal compounds.” Only original music is used, and patients are instructed to listen for half an hour, five days per week for four weeks, according to The New York Times. Listening to certain music at certain times of day is crucial.

The program is led by Vera Brandes, the director of a music and medicine research program at Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. She conducted a pilot study of musical pharmacology last year on patients with hypertension. “Music can address the psychosomatic root causes” of the disorder, she told The Times.
The pilot study showed that after four weeks, “patients experienced clinically significant improvements in heart-rate variability, a major indicator of autonomous nervous function.” Depression, anxiety, insomnia and pain disorders can also be improved with the program, in Brandes’ estimation. A clinical trial will be conducted next, and the program has already been slated for use in Germany and Austria.

Historical Context: Music therapy

To better understand the mechanisms of Brandes’ program, consider the framework for music therapy, which is not administered on such a strict schedule and typically uses songs from patients’ “own repertoire” to stimulate memories and associated emotions, according to Voices, a publication devoted to the field.

Music therapy has been successful in relieving cancer pain by distracting patients with music and “the reminiscence processes associated to the songs,” according to Voices. The reason for the treatment’s success is that “pain and music are felt and processed by the same region of the brain—the thalamus and limbic system,” where emotions and sensations are huddled.

Brandes’ program is more like prescribed medication, and is administered as if it were a controlled substance. The music is composed by three composers including Brandes, and is designed “to deliver specific stimuli—dosages of rhythm, harmony or dissonance and timbre—at the appropriate time and in effective sequence,” reported The New York Times.

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Related Topic: Music and emotions; music and Alzheimer’s patients

Earlier this month, researchers from Northwestern University conducted a study that for the first time provided “biological evidence that musical training enhances an individual’s ability to recognize emotion in sound.” This “fine-tuning” could give musicians an advantage in perceiving “the nuances of emotion in speech,” according to Richard Ashley, an associate professor of music cognition at Northwestern and study co-author.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Davis suggested that music could help Alzheimer’s patients. Professor of psychology Petr Janata’s research builds on previous studies indicating that Alzheimer’s patients with memory deficiencies still respond to music. Janata mapped brain activity of patients listening to music and noted activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area that remains intact longer than other parts of the brain as Alzheimer’s progresses.

Reference: Definition of music therapy

The American Music Therapy Association explains that Music Therapy “is the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” The site describes candidates who might benefit from music therapy, such as women in labor.

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