Feb 242010
Authors: Nic Turiciano

In a windowless room of the University Center for the Arts Tuesday sat patients of a group meeting to undergo a less common form of physical therapy.

Everyone in the group shared a common trait; they all have Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills, speech and other functions of the brain.

Group members stood next to a wall, just in case they lost their balance, and turned their heads from side to side to the rhythm of a song being played on a piano in the corner of the room.

The therapy session, headed by department research associate Ruth Rice and clinical coordinator Sarah Johnson, takes place every other Tuesday in the Center for Biomedical Research in Music in the UCA.

The department is affiliated with the CSU School of the Arts and consists of three divisions: The Robert F. Unkefer Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy, which serves to advance education in neurologic music therapy, neuroscience research laboratories and neurologic music therapy clinics.

Though the academy has only been open since 2002, CBRM has been conducting research in the field of music biology for about 20 years.

Throughout those years, Rice and Michael Thaut, who is a professor of music and neuroscience and the director of the School of the Arts, have been researching music and the human brain, arguing that music is for more than just recreation; it can be used as a powerful therapy tool and, in fact, can make those who listen smarter.

At a lecture delivered to a standing room only crowd on Monday at the Colorado Welcome Center, Thaut made his argument:

“Music is a product of the brain. We think in music. We’re born with that ability,” Thaut said. “It’s a language that has rules, syntax, grammar. It’s abstract. It’s symbolic. It belongs to the cognitive abilities of the human brain.”

This claim could not have been made 20 years ago, according to Thaut, but the advent of brain imaging technologies, such as the PET scan and FMRI, has proven that our brains react strongly to musical stimulation and have even given us visual representations of these reactions.

These new findings have led to a better understanding of how music interacts with our brains, especially in the fields of education and therapy.
The music being used during Tuesday’s therapy session was employed as an optimizer in an attempt to help re-educate damaged parts of the brain.

CBRM uses rhythmic cues with Parkinson’s and stroke victims to see if these elements will help them in tasks, such as walking and overall symmetry in their movements.

So far, according to Johnson, the implementation of music into therapy has been successful.

“The research points over and over again to that when we use our muscles in a rhythmic fashion, we get stronger muscle contractions. We get more organized and coordinated muscle contractions,” Johnson said. “So, therefore, they can move in smoother trajectory patterns in a more organized, coordinated fashion.”

According to an upcoming publication by Thaut and his associate, Gerald McIntosh, in the scientific journal “Cerebrum,” a recent study of arm training with auditory rhythm resulted in brain plasticity and activation in the sensorimotor cortex and the cerebellum.

The same exercises performed without the rhythmic cues resulted in no new changes in brain activations.

But music has purposes other than of the therapeutic nature.

Music stimulates the brain. But more importantly, it stimulates different and varying areas of the brain. Subjects like math stimulate only one designated area, but music activates areas involved with memory, motor control, language and attention, among others.

Music education in school has long been a supplemental curriculum, Thaut said, but these findings in the biomedical research of music are challenging that tradition.

Those in the field of biomedical research in music contend that much like math and language, music should be a core curriculum due to its benefits for the human brain.

“We train kids to learn to think in abstract, non-verbal auditory or visual images and patterns. It is a very critical function of the human intellect. The best way to train that ability is probably through the arts,” Thaut said.

According to Thaut and McIntosh’s upcoming publication, the areas in the brain serving hand control become larger and better connected after just weeks of piano training by a novice.

This enlarging and better connection of the brain help in hand control, but do not necessarily mean that you are now smarter, a common mistake, Thaut said.

“Not everybody who has to take math in high school or junior high school ends up becoming a mathematician, but we would still probably all agree that it is good for the brain to learn, to train, to think in numbers and quantities. It’s the same thing with music,” he said.

Staff writer Nic Turiciano can be reached at verve@collegian.com.

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