Finding Their Voice: Music Therapy helps Aphasia Patients

Heather Atkinson

Suffering from a stroke or other brain-related incident is likely to cause aphasia, a myriad of neurological, communicative, emotional and various other damages. These damages have the potential of interfering with the life of the affected in countless ways.

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When a stroke occurs, for example, a blood vessel located in the brain becomes obstructed, and the much-needed oxygen being transported by the intricate system of blood vessels is not able to be delivered to the surrounding nerve cells, according to the National Stroke Association. This causes vital tissues to die, and since the brain is an elaborate system that is responsible for communicating with the rest of the body’s entirety, damage to any specific part of the brain will affect a corresponding section of the body, sometimes with devastating consequences.

What is Aphasia?

One such possible consequence is a disorder known as aphasia. The America Speech-Language-Hearing Association define aphasia as a condition that occurs when trauma is administered to the language centers of the brain. There are various levels of aphasia, ranging from mild misunderstanding and expressive difficulties, to the inability to form grammatical sentences or understand conversation at all.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, the affected person may not be aware of their symptoms in some cases, but when they are, it causes extreme frustration and often hopelessness due to an inability to communicate. There are no cures or proven treatments for aphasia, but there are several types of therapies that are being practiced in order to attempt to rebuild the damage caused to the nervous system and restore the ability for an affected person to communicate.

Treating Aphasia Using Melodic Intonation Therapy

One of the more interesting treatment options that gained credibility in recent years is music therapy, known professionally and in the scientific world as melodic intonation therapy. Since the late 1800s, when aphasia became a subject of clinical study, therapists have come into contact with patients who have only been able to produce words while singing, and since have been attempting to use music as a means of rewiring the human brain that has lost some or all of the use of its communicatory abilities.

This seems to work, though not all treatments are successful because of basic neurology. When one half of the brain is damaged, the other half begins to become more involved in order to compensate for the loss of activity coming from its counterpart, as described in a study outlined in an article titled “From Singing to Speaking” in the September/October 2005 edition of Stroke Connection Magazine.

In the case of aphasia, the language center of the brain is located in the left hemisphere; therefore, when this part of the brain begins performing less due to brain trauma, the right hemisphere begins to pick up the pace, which is the side of the brain where many aspects of music reside. This shows that the two sides of the brain have the ability of working together to not necessarily repair damage to dead tissues, but to most certainly teach the old brain new tricks.

While working in the aphasia unit at the Boston VA Hospital, Dr. Martin L. Albert, Robert W. Sparks and Nancy A. Helm, the authors of this study, noticed a woman whose speech was limited to nonsensical phonetic combinations; yet during singalongs with the other patients, she would contribute to the music with a voice that knew many of the words.

According to “From Singing to Speaking,” the circumstance of this woman encouraged them to develop a treatment program that essentially turns everyday words and phrases into melodies, accompanied by tapping rhythms that the patients are able to learn and repeat in harmony with their therapists. This is done until they are able to produce words on their own, hence being able to communicate through song.

Determining Treatment for Aphasia

It is suggested that people with loved ones who suffer from aphasia attempt to sing with them, or encourage them to sing their favorite songs. If efforts seem to produce promising results, consult with a speech-language pathologist to determine which treatments might be examined further. With further research, it is hopeful that more treatments and speech-healing processes will reveal themselves as neurologists uncover the many mysteries surrounding the brain, and the many untouched advantages of music.

“The musicians become the conduit for delivering the tremendous therapeutic benefits of music on the brain to people who would never have access,” Robert Gupta, founder of Street Symphony, a group of musicians who play for homeless and mentally-ill people, said. “The beauty of music therapy offers them a chance to transcend the world around them.”

More About Aphasia

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