Music Mends Minds After Stroke

Listening to Favorite CDs Speeds Stroke Recovery

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on February 19, 2008

Feb. 19, 2008 -- Listening to their favorite music helps stroke patients recover mental function and makes them less depressed and confused, Finnish researchers find.

The study, by neuroscientists working together with music therapists, is the first to show that listening to music soon after stroke can have specific treatment effects.

"Our research shows for the first time that listening to music during this crucial period can enhance cognitive recovery and prevent negative mood," study researcher Teppo Sarkamo, a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki, Finland, said in a news release.

It's scientific validation of something music therapists have been working on for decades, says board-certified music therapist Concetta M. Tomaino, DA, executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for music therapy at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services in New York. Tomaino was not involved in the Finnish study.

"It is very exciting for me to see in this scientific study something I have been talking about for 20 years," Tomaino tells WebMD. "Our focus has been on discovering the elements of music and music therapy that can help with recovery of cognitive and language function."

(Did you listen to music after your stroke? Play music for your loved one who had a stroke? Talk about it on WebMD's Stroke: Support Group message board.)

Music Stimulates Neural Networks

Sarkamo and colleagues randomly assigned 60 stroke patients to a music group, a language group, or a control group. All patients received standard stroke rehabilitation treatment. Those in the music group were provided with CD players and CDs of their favorite music in any musical genre. Those in the language group got tape players and books on tape.

Patients assigned to the music and language groups were told to listen to music CDs or books on tape for at least one hour every day for the first two months after their stroke. All patients kept listening diaries; hospital staff and caretakers encouraged listening and, when necessary, helped patients work the CD/tape players.

"We found that three months after the stroke, verbal memory improved from the first week post-stroke by 60% in music listeners, by 18% in audio-book listeners, and by 29% in non-listeners," Sarkamo says. "Similarly, focused attention -- the ability to control and perform mental operations and resolve conflicts among responses -- improved by 17% in music listeners, but no improvement was observed in audio-book listeners and non-listeners."

These between-group differences persisted six months after stroke. In addition, the music group had a less depressed and confused mood than the non-listener group.

"What these researchers show so eloquently is that music attracts attention from several parts of the brain simultaneously," Tomaino says. "Stroke damage is in a localized region. Music stimulates neural networks that bypass this region. This allows the recovery to take place."

Tomaino says the Finnish researchers were successful because they were careful to find music that the patients found both interesting and emotionally stimulating.

"To recover function, there are two fundamental pieces to music therapy," she says. "One, it has to grab your attention, and two, it has to move you. Music is complex. It has both analytic and emotional components and involves both sides of the brain. In stroke, attention and mood are most damaged. What this study shows is that just listening to something that holds your attention and moves you can improve function in the damaged areas of the brain."

Sarkamo cautions that more research is needed to validate the results of the study. And he notes that what works for one stroke patient may not work for another.

"I would caution people not to interpret this as evidence that music listening works for every individual patient," he says. "Rather than an alternative, music listening should be considered as an addition to other active forms of therapy such as speech therapy or neuropsychological rehabilitation."

Show Sources


Sarkamo, T. Brain, published online Feb. 19, 2008; doi: 10.1093/brain/awn013.

News release, Oxford Journals.

Concetta M. Tomaino, DA, MT-BC, executive director, Institute for Music and Neurologic Function; senior vice president for music therapy, Beth Abraham Family of Health Services, Bronx, N.Y.

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