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Music therapy helping patients with speech and motor disorders

Ray García

Music from your past has the ability to "take you back" and music therapy may be able to do the same. People who haven’t spoken in years can sing lyrics and even immobile patients are able to tap along to the rhythm of familiar music. This week, how music therapy is able to tap into the brains of those with speech and motor disorders caused by Alzheimer’s, dementia, stroke, and traumatic brain injury.

Dr. Concetta Tomaino was one of the first music therapists in the world and remains to be a pioneer in the field. She worked with Dr. Oliver Sacks; a renowned neurologist to found the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, where she continues to serve as executive director. She joins us on "Take Care" to discuss her work in music therapy and how it's improving people's lives.

In the 1970’s Tomaino discovered that music had an effect on end-stage dementia patients. When she played music half remained catatonic or immobile and unresponsive and the others became agitated. She realized that the music was causing a response in them. When singing a song Tomaino thought the patients would know, she got an even greater response.

“And yet when I sang an old I thought they would possibly know, the people who were catatonic woke up and looked at me, people who were agitated stopped, and half of them started singing the words to the song,” said Tomaino.

Music has such a powerful effect because it registers in different parts of the brain. Studies have shown that it engages all different parts of the brain while people are listening and processing the song.

"Scientists who are studying the actual perception of components of music in the brain are showing us that music isn't processed in just one part of the brain," says Tomaino. "So for us to appreciate and respond to say a song which includes rhythm and melody and harmony and emotional context and memory associations means that almost every part of our brain has to be turned on."

When working in music therapy, it is important to find the right type of music that will prompt a response.  Generally, music from the patient's late teens and early twenties are the ones that prompt emotional responses, according to Tomaino. There are also other factors that may help therapists find music that is important to the patient.

“So we really look at their cultural background, their age, ethnic background and that’s only if we don’t know the person specifically,” said Tomaino.

Like other therapies, music therapy takes an individualized approach to the treatment of each patient. Depending on their level of need the therapist will develop goals and a plan based on the independent needs of the patient.

”For example somebody who's recently had a stroke it may be appropriate to work with them several times a week in a very repetitive way, using a very specific component of music to help them regain their speech,” says Tomaino. “For somebody that has an emotional issue maybe a once or twice a week may be appropriate. And you keep assessing the person’s response to see if the music is making a difference and if something needs to be changed.”

Music therapy is growing in popularity as a treatment option the availability of it is still not as widespread. There are only about 7,000 people in the United States that are trained in music therapy but some music therapists will consult to hospitals or do in home therapies.

To find a music therapist, Tomaino says you can visit the American Music Therapy Association's website or check the Certification Board for Music Therapists.