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Health Sense

The power of music

With brains wired for song, we derive pleasure, feel less pain and transcend our body's limits

Dan Ellsey, 33, was sitting in his wheelchair in a soulless room at Tewksbury Hospital, his virtually useless arms and weak torso strapped to the chair for safety.

Suddenly, as soon as we were introduced, he arched his back, grinned broadly, and aimed the riveting power of his dark brown eyes at me, as if eye contact were his only means of transcending the prison of his body.

But it isn't. In the last few years, Ellsey, who was born with cerebral palsy, has discovered another, almost miraculous, way of expressing himself: music. Not just listening to country and soft rock, as he has done for years, but composing music himself with a special computerized system called Hyperscore, developed by composer-inventor, Tod Machover, professor of music and media and director of the Opera of the Future group at the MIT Media Lab.

I stand there, awed, as we listen to Ellsey's music, which on the computer has an abstract, eerie sound that swells and recedes like ocean waves. As we listen, we watch on the computer screen as the "score" - colored lines on a graph that represent different instruments - unfolds before our eyes.

A look of pure bliss crossed his face. For Ellsey, as for most human beings, music has almost inexplicable power - to rouse armies to battle, to soothe babies, to communicate peaks of joy and depths of sorrow that mere words cannot.

Just why evolution would have endowed our brains with the neural machinery to make music is a mystery.

"It's unclear why humans are so uniquely sensitive to music - certainly music shares many features with spoken language, and our brains are particularly developed to process the rapid tones and segments of sound that are common to both," said Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose latest book, "Musicophilia," is about the brain's sensitivity to music. Some researchers, he added in an e-mail interview, believe that in primitive cultures, music and speech were not distinct. Other researchers debate which came first in evolution, speech or song.

What is clear is that the brain is abundantly wired to process music.

Scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute, for instance, have found dramatic evidence on brain scans that the "chills," or a visceral feeling of awe, that people report listening to their favorite music are real. Music that a person likes - but not music that is disliked - activates both the higher, thinking centers in the brain's cortex, and, perhaps more important, also the "ancient circuitry, the motivation and reward system," said experimental psychologist Robert Zatorre, a member of the team. It's this ancient part of the brain that, often through the neurotransmitter dopamine, also governs basic drives such as for food, water, and sex, suggesting the tantalizing idea that the brain may consider music on a par with these crucial drives.

But music has the power not just to awe but to heal. If a person has a stroke on the left side of the brain, where the speech centers are located in most people, that "wipes out a major part of communication," said Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, chief of the Cerebrovascular Disorder Division and Stroke-Recovery Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

But if the right side, where a lot of music is processed, is intact, some stroke patients can use "melodic intonation therapy," which involves singing using two tones (relatively close in pitch) to communicate. Schlaug's research suggests that with intense therapy some patients can even move from this two-tone singing back to actual speech.

Stroke patients with gait problems also profit from neurologically based music therapy. At the Center for Biomedical Research in Music at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, director Michael Thaut and his team have shown that people partially paralyzed on one side can retrain to walk faster and in a more coordinated way if they practice walking rhythmically, cued by music or a metronome. Combining rhythmic training with physical therapy also helps stroke patients recover gait faster, he said in an e-mail.

"Music helps us organize our movement," said Kathleen Howland, who has a PhD in music and cognition and teaches at Lesley University in Cambridge. Twenty years ago, she said, therapists tried to get stroke patients to walk better by flashing lights at them. But music, especially rhythm, works much better, she said.

A number of studies show that music therapy - the use of music for medical goals - can reduce pain. In a 2001 study on burn patients, whose burns must be frequently scraped to reduce dead tissue, researchers found that music therapy significantly reduced the excruciating pain. Patients undergoing colonoscopy also seem to feel less pain and need fewer sedative drugs if they listen to music during the procedure, according to several studies.

But not all studies have been so clear-cut. One 2007 review by the Cochrane Collaboration, a nonprofit, international organization that evaluates medical research, involved pooling data from 51 pain studies; it showed that listening to music can reduce the intensity of pain and the need for narcotic drugs, but cautioned that, overall, the benefit was small.

Music therapy may also improve mental state and functioning in people with schizophrenia, according to a 2007 Cochrane review. Premature infants who listen to lullabies learn to suck better and gain more weight than those who don't get music therapy. And Deforia Lane, director of music therapy at the University Hospitals Ireland Cancer Center in Cleveland, has found an improvement in immune response among hospitalized children who played, sang, and created music compared to children who did not get music therapy.

Indeed, the list of potential benefits from music therapy seems almost endless (check out the website of the American Music Therapy Association,

For some people, like Dan Ellsey, they can be nothing short of liberating.

As the sound of Ellsey's music faded away the other day, I asked him what message he would like to tell people through his music. Painstakingly, he tapped out his answer, aiming a laser device on his forehead to highlight pictures and letters on his computer.

"I am smart," he wrote, arching his back, joy beaming from his eyes. "I have a good personality."

Anything else? Eyes alight, he tapped: "I am a musician."

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the Health Sense column about the power of music in Monday's Health/Science section misrepresented research comparing the use of flashing lights and music to help people walk better. The research was done on healthy volunteers, not stroke patients.

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