The brain is an exceptionally complex organ, which makes treating neural conditions particularly difficult. Music, however, is an ideal complement to conventional therapies in that it is simple, non-invasive and, at least for most people, enjoyable. Experts believe that listening to music, besides making us feel good, might possibly rewire the brain and find new pathways for neural signals to travel.
According to the National Aphasia Foundation, patients suffering from strokes are encouraged to sing words rather than say them as part of their speech therapy. The treatment, known as melodic intonation therapy (MIT), is used regularly in people suffering from brain injuries and is believed to bridge the divide between the left and right sides of the brain, where language and music are processed, respectively.
A study published in the journal Brain found that when stroke patients combined music (of their choice) with their regular therapy, not only was their mood lifted, but their verbal memory and focused attention benefited. Researchers believe that music directly stimulates recovery of the damaged regions while also enhancing parts of the brain that are responsible for pleasure, arousal, motivation and memory.
Researchers have also found that music can benefit people suffering from other neural afflictions. At Colorado State University, they are using music as a therapy for Parkinson's disease because it seems to influence the balance center of the brain while stimulating the production of dopamine, which is known to be deficient in people suffering from the disorder. Music and its rhythmic cues are also used as a means for patients to improve their movement and balance.
Musical memory also seems to be more resilient than other forms of memory, especially in the aftermath of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As a consequence, music can be an effective tool in helping these individuals, as well.
All of these events are increasing the potential for a fundamental change in the approach to mental rehabilitation, though for now, because the health benefits are largely anecdotal, music therapy remains somewhat on the fringe of standard neurological care. That may very well change as more clinical evidence is obtained and the field of music therapy gains credibility as they fine tune their methods.