According to fairy tales, music has the power to tame savage beasts. According to the marketers of certain baby toys, listening to Mozart can make your child smarter. Recently, medical science has weighed in: According to a study from Finland, music can help our brains recover from a stroke.
The researchers found that listening to music enhanced cognitive recovery and improved mood after a middle cerebral artery stroke.
Patients recovered their memory for words and their ability to focus attention better when they were able to listen to music of their choice soon after a stroke than patients who did not listen to anything or in those who listened to audio books, according to Teppo Sarkamo, M.A., of the University of Helsinki, who, with colleagues, reported the study results online in the medical journal Brain.
Patients who listened to music they liked also had a generally more positive mood.
Typically, during the first weeks and months after a stroke, patients spend most of their time engaged in non-therapeutic activities — or doing nothing at all — even though this is an ideal time for rehabilitation, the researchers said.
Previous studies have suggested that "an enriched sound environment" can enhance some brain functions, including learning and memory. The effects of music on recovery from neural damage, however, had never been studied. So the researchers recruited 60 patients, ages 75 or younger, who were in the acute recovery phase from a left or right hemisphere middle cerebral artery stroke.
Patients were randomly assigned to a music group, a language group or a control group receiving conventional care.
For two months, the music and language groups listened daily for at least an hour to self-selected music or audio books. The control group was left to enjoy the whirring, beeping and other assorted sounds of a normal hospital ward.
The patients participating in the study underwent an extensive neuropsychological assessment at one week, three months, and six months after the stroke. The assessment included a wide range of cognitive tests as well as mood and quality-of-life questionnaires.
Fifty-four patients completed the study. Tests at three months showed that verbal memory was significantly better in the music group than in the control group or in the language group. Focused attention recovery was also significantly better in the music group than in the control group and marginally better in the music group than in the language group.
At six months, the findings remained similar, the researchers said. In addition, the music group experienced less depression and confusion.
It is possible, the researchers suggest, that the pleasure of listening to music may, in itself, help patients cope with the emotional stress caused by severe neurological illness. They also suggest that music may stimulate the recovery of damaged areas of the brain and improve brain plasticity after a stroke. It is possible that listening to music, especially music with lyrics, which activates the brain bilaterally, would facilitate recovery from unilateral stroke more than listening to purely spoken material, which activates the left hemisphere primarily.
The researchers caution that their conclusions are speculative and further research is needed to explain the potential positive effects music on recovery from a stroke. What they are pretty sure of is that listening to music every day during early stroke recovery "offers a valuable addition to the patient's care...by providing an individually targeted, easy-to-conduct, and inexpensive means to facilitate cognitive and emotional recovery."