Can Music Be More Effective Than Drugs?

ku-bigpicAccording to a new analysis of 400 published scientific papers, the old adage that “music is medicine” may literally be true. Canadian psychologists from McGill University have shown that the neurochemical benefits of music can boost the body’s immune system, reduce anxiety, and help regulate mood. The time has come, say the researchers, for doctors and therapists to start taking music much more seriously.

The review, which now appears (pdf) in Trends in Cognitive Science, was prompted by the growing number of studies addressing evidence-based music interventions (as opposed to music therapy, which is something else). Prior to this review, no one had really taken the time to look at what all the new evidence was suggesting.

Indeed, music is frequently used for self-medicating purposes; many of us listen to music as a way to calm ourselves or give us a boost. And we do it as frequently — if not more so — than with coffee or alcohol.

Moreover, and as Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel Levitin point out in their review, music is used in some clinical settings to promote health and well-being, including pain management, relaxation, psychotherapy, and personal growth. It’s just that many of these efforts are driven by an intuitive sense that music does the trick; many clinicians just take it for granted that music helps.

Looking to correct this, Chanda and Levitin have shown that there are plenty of studies linking music to specific neurochemical processes. In their analysis, which surveyed over 400 papers, they looked for patterns in the scientific evidence supporting the claim that music can affect brain chemistry in a positive way. They succeeded in isolating four areas where music can help:

Reward, motivation, and pleasure (to help with eating disorders, as an example)
Stress and arousal (to help reduce anxiety)
Immunity (to strengthen the body’s immune system and slow-down age related decline)
Social affiliation (to assist in trust building and social bonding)

The researchers connected these areas with four primary neuro-chemical systems:

Dopamine and opioids
Cortisol (and related hormones)
Serotonin (and related hormones)

For example, the researchers discovered 15 studies in which cortisol, a stress hormone, dropped after listening to relaxing music.

There was a paper describing how older adults can reverse age-related decline by participating in group drumming circles (neurons appear to be activated in sync with the beat).

Studies have shown that group singing can release oxytocin, which can help foster feelings of social connection.

And incredibly, one study showed that patients who listened to music prior to surgery had lower anxiety levels than people who took anti-anxiety drugs like Valium — and without the cost and side-effects. The scientists speculate that music may stimulate the release of endogenous opioid peptides within the brain.

“Although the evidence is often weak or indirect and all studies suffer from important limitations, the reviewed evidence does provide preliminary support for the claim that neurochemical changes mediate the influence of music on health,” the authors note in the study. [emphasis added]

“Music is among those lifestyle choices that may reduce stress, protect against disease, and manage pain.”

In terms of next steps, Chanda and Levitin hope to see music used in any number of medical and health-related settings, including its use as a calming agent before surgery, or even during procedures, like dental work.

“The promise of music-based treatments is that they are noninvasive, have minimal or no side effects, are inexpensive, convenient, and completely ‘natural,’” write the authors. Contrast that with presurgical anxiety reducing benzodiazepines, which are known to induce a number of unwanted side-effects, including amnesia, agitation, and hyperactivity.

They also hope to see more research done linking the therapeutic benefits of music to neurochemical reactions in the brain.

Also, the researchers noted that slower music and gentle melodies tend to be more relaxing than faster music, and that patient control over the type of music is critical to success (virtually no one voluntarily chooses New Age music in these contexts, which is why clinicians should never impose it upon their patients).

Read the entire review at Trends in Cognitive Science.

Supplementary source: CBC.

George Dvorsky (io9) / April 2, 2013

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