Rande Davis Gedaliah's 2003 diagnosis of Parkinson's was followed by leg spasms, balance problems, difficulty walking, and ultimately a serious fall in the shower. But something remarkable happened when the 60-year-old public speaking coach turned to an oldies station on her shower radio: She could move her leg with ease, her balance improved, and, she couldn't stop dancing. Now, she puts on her iPod and pumps in Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." when she wants to walk quickly; for a slower pace, Queen's "We Are the Champions" does the trick.
Music therapy has been practiced for decades as a way to treat neurological conditions from Parkinson's to Alzheimer's to anxiety and depression. Now, advances in neuroscience and brain imaging are revealing what's actually happening in the brain as patients listen to music or play instruments and why the therapy works. "It's been substantiated only in the last year or two that music therapy can help restore the loss of expressive language in patients with aphasia" following brain injury from stroke, says Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist and professor at Columbia University, who explored the link between music and the brain in his recent book Musicophilia. Beyond improving movement and speech, he says, music can trigger the release of mood-altering brain chemicals and once-lost memories and emotions.
Parkinson's and stroke patients benefit, neurologists believe, because the human brain is innately attuned to respond to highly rhythmic music; in fact, says Sacks, our nervous system is unique among mammals in its automatic tendency to go into foot-tapping mode. In Parkinson's patients with bradykinesia, or difficulty initiating movement, it's thought that the music triggers networks of neurons to translate the cadence into organized movement. "We see patients develop something like an auditory timing mechanism," says Concetta Tomaino, cofounder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York City. "Someone who is frozen can immediately release and begin walking. Or if they have balance problems, they can coordinate their steps to synchronize with the music," improving their gait and stride. Slow rhythms can ease the muscle bursts and jerky motions of Parkinson's patients with involuntary tremors.