The healing power of vibration

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At its core, music is sound, and sound is rooted in vibration. Led by Lee Bartel, PhD, a music professor at the University of Toronto, several researchers are exploring whether sound vibrations absorbed through the body can help ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia and depression. Known as vibroacoustic therapy, the intervention involves using low frequency sound — similar to a low rumble — to produce vibrations that are applied directly to the body. During vibroacoustic therapy, the patient lies on a mat or bed or sits in a chair embedded with speakers that transmit vibrations at specific computer-generated frequencies that can be heard and felt, says Bartel. He likens the process to sitting on a subwoofer.

In 2009, researchers led by Lauren K. King of the Sun Life Financial Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, found that short-term use of vibroacoustic therapy with Parkinson’s disease patients led to improvements in symptoms, including less rigidity and better walking speed with bigger steps and reduced tremors (NeuroRehabilitation, December, 2009). In that study, the scientists exposed 40 Parkinson’s disease patients to low-frequency 30-hertz vibration for one minute, followed by a one-minute break. They then alternated the two for a total of 10 minutes. The researchers are now planning a long-term study of the use of vibroacoustic therapy with Parkinson’s patients, as part of a new partnership with the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Research Collaboratory, which brings together scientists from around the world who are studying music’s effect on health.

The group is also examining something called thalmocortical dysrhythmia — a disorientation of rhythmic brain activity involving the thalamus and the outer cortex that appears to play a role in several medical conditions including Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease, says Bartel, who directs the collaboratory.

“Since the rhythmic pulses of music can drive and stabilize this disorientation, we believe that low-frequency sound might help with these conditions,” Bartel says. He is leading a study using vibroacoustic therapy with patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease. The hope is that using the therapy to restore normal communication among brain regions may allow for greater memory retrieval, he says.

“We’ve already seen glimmers of hope in a case study with a patient who had just been diagnosed with the disorder,” Bartel says. “After stimulating her with 40-hertz sound for 30 minutes three times a week for four weeks, she could recall the names of her grandchildren more easily, and her husband reported good improvement in her condition.”

The goal of all of this work is to develop “dosable” and “prescribable” music therapy and music as medicine protocols that serve specific neurologic functions and attend to deficits that may result from many of these neurologically based conditions. Rather than viewing music only as a cultural phenomenon, Bartel says, the art should be seen as a vibratory stimulus that has cognitive and memory dimensions.

“Only when we look at it in this way do we start to see the interface to how the brain and body work together.”

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