Rock singer Bono of U2 once said that music can change the world because it can change people. Many people think that he’s right from a social activism perspective, but new research indicates that he may also be right from a neurological perspective, especially in the case of those affected by unilateral spatial neglect (USN). This is a condition that causes a stroke patient to have problems processing information from one side of his or her body.
A recent study indicates that music therapy may have lasting benefits for those affected by USN. This study has the smallest survey size possible — one. However, the unexpectedly positive results make it worthwhile reporting. Patients suffering from USN and related neglect disorders can discuss these results with their medical and therapy teams.
The study of neglect
Neglect is typically quite challenging to treat. Few therapies have been consistently effective in the long term or outside of the therapeutic setting. But in this recent study, French researchers decided to try music therapy in an effort to help a 52-year-old woman whose severe USN had not responded to any conventional treatment in the 20 months following her brain hemorrhage. The patient had no musical training, little interest in music, and seldom listened to music.
The therapeutic equipment consisted of a music synthesizer connected to 12 touch-sensitive pads. Each pad produced a different sound when pressed. Logic Pro software on a Mac converted the input into either drum or piano sounds. Therapy sessions concentrating on rhythm used the drum sounds. Sessions focusing on pitch used piano notes. The therapy was similar in both cases. The patient spent the first few minutes exploring the pads to see which sounds each one made. Then the researchers played sequences for the patient to play back. In the last three minutes of the session, the patient could play whatever she wanted on the pads. Therapy sessions lasted 30 minutes, and the patient received six sessions for each drum and piano sounds.
Improvements in neglect
The therapy did improve the patient’s neglect. These improvements remained when she was retested four months later. She was even able to resume woodworking, a hobby she had avidly pursued before her stroke.
The significant weakness of this study, of course, is that it only included one person. But the strong results and the small possibility of negative side effects mean it could be worth pursuing for patients suffering from USN.
The synthesizer and its peripherals cost approximately $300. The Logic Pro software is about another $200, and a Mac or PC would also be required. Some therapy centers offer some music therapy already and might have equipment that could work. Even though further research is ongoing, this approach has little downside if you have the support of a therapist who is willing to try it.
The first author of the original article was Alma Guilbert, Axe “Neuropsychologie, Audition, Cognition, Action” (NACA), Laboratoire “Psychologie: Interactions, Temps, Emotions, Cognition” (PSITEC), EA 4072, Université Lille Nord de France, Villeneuve d’Ascq, France