Recovering from a stroke is an arduous, frustrating process. But newly published research suggests at least some struggling patients can enhance their progress through a simple and pleasurable activity: listening to music.
Frequent exposure to favorite melodies is a painless and “inexpensive way to help stroke patients cope with the adverse emotional and psychological impacts of stroke, as well as to support their cognitive recovery, especially in the early post-stroke stage,” write the University of Helsinki’s Teppo Särkämö and David Soto of Imperial College London.
Their research suggests listening to music on a daily basis “can improve auditory and verbal memory, focused attention and mood,” the duo reports in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
In 2008, Särkämö reported the first evidence that listening to music can improve the memory and attention skills of stroke patients. His new paper, which provides further evidence supporting his self-described “novel finding,” describes the results of two experiments.
The first focused on “visual neglect,” a disorder that affects many stroke patients. Often, people with brain lesions in the right hemisphere become effectively blind to items in their left field of vision, and vice versa. Treatment for this problem often includes teaching “cognitive strategies to improve attention.”
Soto conducted a very small study involving three stroke patients between the age of 60 and 74, all suffering from visual neglect. They performed a computer task—one that gauged their ability to spot objects of different colors and shapes—under three different conditions: while listening to music of their choice; while listening to less-enjoyable music chosen by the researcher; and in silence. They consistently scored the highest while listening to the music of their choice.
In a related experiment, a stroke victim experienced “a dramatic reduction in visual neglect” after watching a music video featuring the patient’s favorite performer. A functional MRI scan of that patient’s brain suggested the mood-elevating music increased the neural “resources available for visual processing.”
The second study involved 54 stroke patients from the Helsinki University Central Hospital. “As soon as possible after their hospitalization, the patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a music group, an audio book group, or a control group,” the researchers write.
Those in the music group were provided with portable CD players and recordings of “their own favorite music in any musical genre.” Members of the book group were similarly given portable CD players and audio books of their choosing. They received instruction on how to use the equipment and were instructed to listen to either the music or book for at least an hour a day for the next two months, as a part of their post-stroke treatment.
All were tested after three months, and again after six months. At both junctures, those who regularly listened to music for the first 60 days after their stroke scored the highest of the three groups on tests of verbal memory (the ability to recall words) and focused attention, and the lowest on depression and confusion.
The researchers provide four possible explanations for the positive effects of music on stroke victims, ranging from decreased levels of depression and stress to “increased neural plasticity evoked by environmental enrichment.” However it works, these experiments suggest that for those recovering from a stroke, listening to music isn’t just a pleasant distraction; it’s an activity with real therapeutic value.