The Helsinki University Central Hospital recently conducted a study to determine the effects of music on recovery. The researchers recruited 60 patients, age 75 or younger in the acute recovery phase from a left or right hemisphere middle cerebral artery stroke. The individuals were then randomly assigned to one of three groups: a music group, a language group and a control group.
The language group and the music group listened to the music or book of their choice for a minimum of one hour a day, while the control group received standard care. The results showed that patients in the music group displayed better verbal memory and focused attention, less depression, and less confusion at testing three months later. The researchers said that testing at the 6 month marker produced similar findings. Furthermore, post hoc tests found significantly less depression in the music group than in the control group.
The researchers suggest that music in itself may help patients cope with the emotional stress caused by a sudden severe neurological illness. While the language group did have better recovery scores than the control group, it was still lower than the music group, which may be due to the difficulty individuals had listening to the audio books. The results suggest that music may stimulate the recovery of damaged areas of the brain, not only effecting cognition and mood, but it may also have general effects on the plasticity of the brain after a stroke.
Listening to music, they said, may stimulate both the peri-infarct regions in the damaged hemisphere but also regions in the other healthy hemisphere, thereby speeding up recovery.
It is possible, they suggested, that listening to music, especially if it contains lyrics, which activate the brain bilaterally, would facilitate recovery from unilateral stroke more than listening to purely spoken material, which activates the left hemisphere primarily.
However, the researchers said, this suggestion is tentative, and further research is needed to explain the potential effects of a musically enriched recovery environment on brain plasticity after a stroke.
They concluded that listening to music every day during early stroke recovery “offers a valuable addition to the patient’s care … by providing an individually targeted, easy-to-conduct, and inexpensive means to facilitate cognitive and emotional recovery.”