The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded $20 million over 5 years to support the first research projects of the Sound Health initiative to explore the potential of music for treating a wide range of conditions resulting from neurological and other disorders.
The National Endowment for the Arts contributed funds toward these awards. While music therapy has been in practice for many years, Sound Health research aims to advance the understanding of music’s mechanism of action in the brain and how it may be applied more broadly to treat symptoms of disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, stroke, chronic pain and many more. The research will also seek to understand the effect of music on the developing brain of children, according to a media release from NIH.

“We know that the beat of a metronome can steady the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease, for example, but we don’t fully understand how that happens,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, in the release.

“If we can pinpoint in the brain how music therapy works through the use of imaging and biomarkers, the hope is that we can improve its effectiveness and apply it more broadly to improve the lives of millions of people who suffer from neurological and other disorders.”

The Sound Health Initiative—a partnership between the NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts—launched in 2017 to explore the brain’s relationship with music. The Kennedy Center’s efforts have been focused on raising awareness of the science of music and its role in health and well-being through a series of Kennedy Center events.

The Arts Endowment, a federal grant-making entity that funds projects in every Congressional District across America, has contributed funds to the new awards. It also provides strategic consultation on the Sound Health initiative and supports research on music, neuroscience and health through several projects nationwide. The agency is now seeking a cooperator to support a Sound Health Network of researchers and practitioners working in these domains, the release continues.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is honored to be a part of this innovative research,” states Mary Anne Carter, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, in the release.

“Through other programs, we have gathered and reported evidence on how the arts can be integrated in therapy protocols across a range of medical conditions. We are very excited to see how the Sound Heath initiative applies music to neurological diseases and disorders, and to learn how music affects healthy brain functioning.”

Through a series of workshops beginning in January 2017 that involved neuroscientists, music therapists and supporters of both biomedical research and the arts, NIH developed the Sound Health research plan that informed the recent grant awards. With funding from 10 NIH institutes, centers and offices, Sound Health awardees will:

  • Investigate the impact of music and singing on the walking ability and gait of people with Parkinson’s disease and older adults, and how these methods influence the brain.
  • Study how repeated exposure to music — including songs stuck in your head sometimes referred to as earworms — contribute to the creation and consolidation of memories, and how music serves as a cue for retrieving associated memories even when memory structures of the brain involved in effortful memory retrieval are damaged, as in Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Analyze data from longitudinal studies that define growth curves of brain and behavior from childhood to adulthood to learn how brains are shaped by music and how musical training affects attention, executive function, social/emotional functioning and language skills.
  • Examine mechanisms underlying the effects of music intervention on improving early speech and later language learning for developing infants, specifically those at-risk for speech and language disorders.
  • Assess the effects of active music interventions on multiple biomarkers to provide a more holistic understanding of how active music interventions work to mitigate cancer-related stress and its potential to improve immune function.
  • Study musical rhythm synchronization as a mechanism of healthy social development and how that is disrupted in children with autism spectrum disorder, with the goal of developing music interventions for social communication.

“We are thrilled that the Kennedy Center’s partnership with NIH has begun to bear fruit in the form of these grants,” shares Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. “We hope that these in-depth studies of the science behind music’s influence and impact on the brain will bring real understanding of something we know anecdotally — that music is good for you! We’re so grateful to the NIH and NEA for their collaboration in this area, and are eager to hear how the results of these studies support the very real connections between creativity and brain health.”

“These funds are an acknowledgment of what we can achieve with further scientific understanding of music’s effect on our health,” renowned soprano and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Renée Fleming comments in the release.

“The potential is enormous, with benefits that range from early childhood development to end of life care, and a host of therapeutic interventions to treat the symptoms of stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, autism, PTSD and pain, to name a few. I can’t overstate the importance of having the leadership of the NIH encouraging this work. It is music to our ears!”

[Source: National Institutes of Health]