Researchers are Trying to Harness the Power of Music for Unconscious Patients

Plumbing the depths of the unconscious brain has thus far uncovered more mysteries than answers

unconscious mind
Victor Habbick Visions/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Music affects the human brain in unpredictable and profound ways. Some regions appear to be important when we hear new music, others turn on when we listen to our favorite song. Yet some research that delves into how the brain responds to art and music ignites controversy. Combine that with a limited understanding of the unconscious brain and it’s apparent that in this area, scientists often have more questions than answers. 

Take this story, reported by Alexandra Ossola at Braindecoder:

In 2012, seven-year-old Charlotte Neve had a brain hemorrhage while she was sleeping. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed surgery to stop the bleeding, but afterwards she had several seizures and slipped into a coma from which no one was sure she would recover. Charlotte's mother, Leila, was at her bedside listening to the radio when Adele's hit "Rolling In The Deep" started playing. Leila and Charlotte had sung the song together many times and, as Leila sang along to her unconscious daughter, she saw Charlotte smile. The doctors were stunned. Over the next two days, Charlotte recovered more of her faculties—she could talk, focus on colors, and get out of bed.

This story seems extraordinary, and it is. It’s rare to recover from a coma, particularly if the person doesn’t rouse in the first thirty days. The location of a brain injury, the person’s age and health are all factors that influence the likelihood of waking. Occasionally, a patient's brain can heal enough on its own that they wake. Even then, recovery may not be complete. It’s possible that Charlotte’s brain was recovered enough and the music came and just the right time. Soon after she was sent home, she could ride her bike and take dance lessons again, though she was left with partial blindness and memory loss.  

But as unique as Charlotte’s experience was, there is some evidence that music might reach some patients. For one study, the researchers played music to 13 patients, who were all in comas for different reasons. Ossola writes:

For half the patients, the researchers played an excerpt of their preferred music; the other half listened to continuous background noise. Then, while measuring the electrical charge in the patients' brains with an electroencephalograph (EEG), the researchers called the patient's name. The patients who had listened to music first had much more electrical activity in their brains than those who had listened to noise, indicating that the music was perhaps stimulating the brain in a way other types of sounds couldn't. Those with traumatic brain injuries showed the most dramatic response. "These findings demonstrate for the first time that music has a beneficial effect on cognitive processes of patients with disorders of consciousness," the study authors wrote.

Yet James Bernat, a professor of neuroscience at Darthmouth Medical School told Ossola that strong, familiar simuli might help some brain injury patients recover lost neural pathways or find a way to work around damaged areas. "Perhaps familiar music is one route," he says. But there could be others too. In previous work other research groups found that calling a patient’s name increased brain activity as read by an fMRI machine. Another study found a similar response to a baby’s criesHowever, it's worth noting that studies based on brain scans can be difficult to interpret and the field as a whole is plagued with inconsistencies. But researchers will certainly continue to try and understand how, and why, music might help patients.

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