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A sound approach to stroke recovery

Simple melodies and familiar tunes spoke to him, despite the fact that Joel Licuanan’s legs and arms were very weak after a major stroke at age 35. “I’m not sure what was happening to my brainwaves, but the music created excitement and gave me motivation,” says the Toronto man.

Joel participated in a music therapy pilot study at the Heart and Stroke Foundation Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery (CPSR), where he learned to pick out songs on a keyboard and to follow simple rhythms with a therapist. “Maybe music was tapping into a part of my brain that wasn’t otherwise being reached.”

Today, far ahead of where he was after his 2006 stroke, the Royal Bank of Canada employee says the connection between sound, rhythm and rehab helped to set his recovery on track.

And, now, the impact of music on cognitive function (how people think, plan and process information) post-stroke, as well as the impact of music on motor recovery (how people use affected limbs) will be evaluated in a major two-year study of 60 people at the CPSR, the first study of its kind in Canada.

Participants will use a keyboard or drum to tap out melodies or rhythms. Changes in brain activity will be measured using sophisticated imaging technology at the beginning and the end of the study.

“Researchers are finding more and more evidence of the close relationship between auditory and motor systems during musical activities,” says Dr. Takako Fujioka, who led preliminary research at Baycrest in Toronto and recently shifted her work to Stanford University in California. “Ultimately, we hope to translate these findings into new and more effective modes of rehabilitation.”

Dr. Deirdre Dawson, Senior Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, will oversee the next phase of CPSR research. She says music will be used to reach the areas of the brain that control movement and respond to sound in order to determine the impact on neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections.) “The pilot work has shown that the area of the brain that responds to sound also seems to influence other areas of the brain related to higher levels of cognitive function,” Dr. Dawson says. “We also think that using music along with therapy is more engaging to patients, improving participation and leading to better physical outcomes.”

In the meantime, Joel is waiting to see what the research reveals as he continues to push forward with his own recovery. Research is important, he says. And, the Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery music study “is a very positive experience.”

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