Given its power to move us, perhaps it’s no surprise that a great deal of research has focused on whether or not music can help people with depression or anxiety. Now researchers in Finland have asked whether music can benefit people recovering from stroke. Their study is notable for its sound methodological quality, and the results are promising: music does indeed appear to make a difference to patients’ cognitive recovery.
Soon after their hospitalisation, 60 stroke patients were allocated randomly to one of three groups. Those in the music group were provided with a portable CD player and asked to listen to their favourite music for at least an hour a day for two months. Patients in the audio book group spent at least an hour a day for two months listening to audio books of their choosing. A final control group were not given a listening task.
Compared to the patients who listened to audio books and the control patients, the patients who listened to music daily showed superior performance when tested three months and six months later on measures of verbal memory and focused attention. Crucially, the psychologists who performed these neuropsychological assessments were unaware of which groups the patients had been in – making this a single-blind, randomised, controlled trial. The music and audio book patients also showed reduced depression and confusion compared with the control patients.
Teppo Sarkamo and colleagues who conducted the research said that music may exert these benefits by virtue of its wide-ranging impact on brain activity. Neuroimaging studies have shown that listening to music “naturally recruits bilateral temporal, frontal and parietal neural circuits underlying multiple forms of attention, working memory, semantic and syntactic processing, and imagery,” the researchers said. By contrast, the brain activity triggered by speech without music is less extensive and more focused on the language-dominant hemisphere (usually the left).
The new finding is consistent with research on animals showing that a stimulating environment can speed recovery after stroke. Yet the researchers noted with regret that many stroke patients are left in their rooms without much stimulation or interaction. “We suggest that everyday music listening during early stroke recovery offers a valuable addition to the patients’ care,” they concluded.
Sarkamo, T., Tervaniemi, M., Laitinen, S., Forsblom, A., Soinila, S., Mikkonen, M., Autti, T., Silvennoinen, H.M., Erkkila, J., Laine, M., Peretz, I., Hietanen, M. (2008). Music listening enhances cognitive recovery and mood after middle cerebral artery stroke. Brain, 131(3), 866-876. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awn013