Who: Damir Janigro, Neuroscentist, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, OH Published: Reported by “Time” Magazine, 10/23/2009 and Oct. 30, 2009 as part of a symposium in New York City on Music and the Brain.
Background: The medical community has long been interested in how the brain is affected by music. Historically, however, most research was linked to the cortex, the brain’s outer layer, which is associated with functions like memory, consciousness and abstract thought. In those studies, neurosurgical patients, wide awake with their cortex exposed, listened to certain sounds and music. While their neural activity was being recorded, they told researchers how those selections made them feel. Janigro wanted to perform similar studies on motor centers deep within the brain. Because music is often associated with movement — like tapping one’s feet — he theorized that music could be used to modify the activity of thalamic and subthalamic neurons, which are located in the same area where a neuronal pacemaker is implanted during deep-brain stimulation.
Methods: In the studies, neurosurgical patients, wide awake with their cortex exposed, listened to certain sounds and music. While their neural activity was being recorded, they told researchers how those selections made them feel. In Janigro’s study, more than a dozen neurosurgical patients, predominantly with Parkinson’s, listened to three musical selections — rhythmic music with no discernible melody (by Gyorgi Ligeti, of Stanley Kubrick–movie fame), melodic music with undefined rhythm (by Aaron Jay Kernis, a Pulitzer Prize winner) and something in between (Ludwig van Beethoven). In the later stages of the research, to prevent familiarity from swaying the subjects’ responses, music was specifically composed for the study by students from the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Results: Listening to melodic music decreased the activity of individual neurons in the deep brain, says Janigro, adding that the physical responses to the calming music ranged from patients’ closing their eyes to falling asleep. Some patients even settled into a nice round of snoring. And when lead neurosurgeon Ali Rezai needed patients to perform an action, such as lifting a limb, during the procedures, he simply removed their earphones and relayed instructions. Once the music resumed, patients returned to their snoozing
Conclusion: With the right music patients can be more relaxed in the operating room. And that relaxation may mean not only that procedures involve less medication — to control blood pressure, which increases with stress — but perhaps that patients have quicker recovery times and shorter hospital stays. Janigro anticipates that following institutional approval, music will be used during certain neurosurgical procedures at the clinic as early as 2010. He hopes other hospitals will soon follow Cleveland’s lead. “This type of surgery can be a traumatizing experience, and using music can decrease anxiety,” he notes.