WASHINGTON – Like a friendly Pied Piper, the violinist keeps up a toe-tapping beat as dancers weave through busy hospital hallways and into the chemotherapy unit, patients looking up in surprised delight. Upstairs, a cellist strums an Irish folk tune for a patient in intensive care.
Music increasingly is becoming a part of patient care — although it’s still pretty unusual to see roving performers captivating entire wards, like at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital one fall morning.
“It takes them away for just a few minutes to some other place where they don’t have to think about what’s going on,” said cellist Martha Vance.
The challenge: Harnessing music to do more than comfort the sick. Now, moving beyond programs like Georgetown’s, the National Institutes of Health is bringing together musicians, music therapists and neuroscientists to tap into the brain’s circuitry and figure out how.
Scientists aren’t starting from scratch. Learning to play an instrument, for example, sharpens how the brain processes sound and can improve children’s reading and other school skills. Stroke survivors who can’t speak sometimes can sing, and music therapy can help them retrain brain pathways to communicate.
But what’s missing is rigorous science to better understand how either listening to or creating music might improve health in a range of other ways.
In North Carolina, a neuroscientist and a dance professor are starting an improvisational dance class for Alzheimer’s to tell if music and movement enhance a diseased brain’s neural networks.
Well before memory loss becomes severe, Alzheimer’s patients can experience apathy, depression and gait and balance problems as the brain’s synaptic connections begin to falter. The study at Wake Forest University will randomly assign such patients to the improvisation class — to dance playfully without having to remember choreography — or to other interventions.
The test: If quality-of-life symptoms improve, will MRI scans show correlating strengthening of neural networks that govern gait or social engagement?
With senior centers increasingly touting arts programs, “having a deeper understanding of how these things are affecting our biology can help us understand how to leverage resources already in our community,” said lead researcher Christina Hugenschmidt.