Among the devastating consequences of her brain injury from a gunshot wound 10 months ago, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords lost the ability to talk. But with help from music-based therapy, according to an ABC News segment that aired this week, Giffords has rediscovered her voice and, it seems, her spirit.
The footage, which shows Giffords crying in frustration when she tries unsuccessfully to talk but looking joyful as she sings fluently, paints a dramatic picture of the power of music to help people overcome brain injuries.
Giffords’ story also highlights both the potential and the limitations of a fairly new field of medicine.
Music brings so much pleasure to our everyday lives, and it would make sense if music also worked as a healing tool. But scientists are still awaiting solid data to prove what seems to work in case study after case study.
“It used to be thought that music was a superfluous thing, and no one understood why it developed from an evolutionary standpoint,” said Michael De Georgia, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at Case Western Reserve University’s University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve just started to understand how broad and diffuse the effect of music is on all parts of the brain,” he added. “We are just starting to understand how powerful music can be. We don’t know what the limits are.”
As early as the post-World War II era, physical therapists noticed that Big Band music helped wounded veterans get up and learn to walk again, said Lee Anna Rasar, a musical therapist at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
Since then, researchers have documented a consistent pattern. When given a rhythm to walk to, people with Parkinson’s disease, strokes and other forms of neurological damage are able to regain a symmetrical stride and a sense of balance. Each beat serves as an auditory cue that the brain uses to anticipate timing and regulate footfalls.
In the last decade, researchers have also begun to demonstrate ways that music-based therapies can help with speech recovery. In particular, a type of treatment called melodic intonation therapy has shown the greatest promise, Rasar said. Using a combination of rhythm, pitch, vision and hearing, the brain manages to sing words that it can’t say.
For Giffords, therapy started with songs like “Happy Birthday,” said Maegan Morrow, the Congresswoman’s music therapist at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. At first, Giffords would simply sing the word “you” after Morrow sang, “Happy Birthday to…”
Over time, Giffords learned to repeat ordinary phrases in a sing-songy voice. A song would gradually become a chant and finally a spoken phrase with the natural rhythm of speech.
Scientists are still working out the details of how this kind of therapy works. But one likely explanation is that music is represented in many areas of the brain, while just two brain regions process language. Music also tends to dig deeper, more well-worn pathways between neurons.
So, in patients like Giffords — who suffered left-hemisphere brain damage that knocked out her Broca’s area, a major language center — often, at least some musical areas remain intact. Through music, then, patients can reach into their stored knowledge about words and use songs to create new connections for speech. More