Singing Therapy Can Rewire Brains of Speech-Impaired Stroke Patients

By Smriti Rao | February 22, 2010 3:02 pm

brain-3If you can’t say it, then sing it! Experts researching patients who have lost their ability to speak after a stroke are now suggesting that they could be able to communicate with music using Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT). Using MIT, the scientists showed that patients who were earlier communicating only in mumbles and grunts could now learn to sing out basic phrases like “I am thirsty.”

The study was conducted by Harvard Medical School neurologist Gottfried Schlaug on 12 patients whose speech was impaired by strokes, and showed that patients who were taught to essentially sing their words improved their verbal abilities and maintained the improvement for up to a month after the end of the therapy [Wall Street Journal]. Schlaug presented these findings at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.

The researchers worked with stroke patients whose speech was incoherent, and who had damage in a region of the left side of the brain that is typically involved in speech. Schlaug’s research suggests that the brain can be essentially rewired. Stroke patients can learn to use a region on the right side of the brain, which is typically involved with music, for sing-songy speech instead. “Singing can give entry into a broken system by engaging the right hemisphere,” says Schlaug [ScienceNOW Daily News].

Using MIT, therapists taught patients how to sing words and phrases consistent with the underlying melody of speech, while tapping a rhythm with their left hands. After frequent repetition—1.5 hour-long daily sessions with a therapist for 15 weeks—the patients gradually learn to turn the sung words into speech [Wall Street Journal]. When Schlaug compared images of the patients’ brains before and after the therapy, he found that the right side of their brains had changed both structurally and functionally.

Though it has been known that patients who can’t speak clearly often do better when they sing the words, this is the first time anyone has shown the phenomenon through a clinical trial that combines treatment with brain imaging. Schlaug hopes more patients and caregivers will be enticed to try out Musical Intonation Therapy. However, he points out that MIT is long and expensive; the treatment often lasts for 14 to 16 weeks, with 90-minute sessions five days a week. The results are also dependent on how recently the patient had the stroke and the severity of the attack.

But the benefits of the therapy are usually permanent, and two thirds of patients who have undergone MIT with Schlaug added more words to their spoken vocabulary after their therapy had ended than the 100 words they were “taught” to say in therapy [AFP]. Each year, about 60,000 to 70,000 people suffer speech defects due to a stroke.

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain
  • Joe

    It is my understanding that some oriental languages use tonal, or ‘sing-song’ qualities. I am curious how recovering stroke patients who speak such languages would compare to those who speak languages that are not so tonal.

  • Peter Armstrong

    As a person who suffered from a debilitating stutter until my mid-twenties (and an accomplished singer), I can say with certainty that when one sings, one does not stutter.

    By the same token, through some very unscientific tests with stuttering friends, when they thought “in a singing way” while speaking, their stutters disappeared – a real miracle!

    Could it be that singing uses different parts of the brain than regular speech, and that stuttering (in my humble opinion, usually learned bad behaviour) can be cured in this way?


  • Joan Klingman

    In 1957 I had a son who was brain damaged due to lack of oxygen at birth, he also has minimal CP. when he was about 18 mos he hummed and sang songs alot as he was in a home that did that. By the time he was two he was singing the tune to different songs that were able to convey the message he needed something, like food or drink or even he wanted to play. Eventually some years later he did learn to talk but for those eary few years he sang to communicate. He will be 53 yrs old this month and his biggest pleasure is his music, he spends long hours listening and has an uncanny ability to know even the most detailed information about the song he is listening to.

  • Alan Darvill

    After two strokes, the last one 6 years ago, I am now fine again – with just one problem – I now cannot talk! At least, my wife can understand about 60%, but that’s all. None of my friends can understand more than about 10%.

    Apart from that, and my writing is now bad, that’s all. I can still drive, walk, my hearing is good, I can jet ski, water ski, I can write on the web – hence this not to “Discovery Magazine – but try as I might, I cannot use my voice!

    I USED to lecture for up to 3 hours on marketing, without any notes or idiot boards. So why? What’s wrong with me? Aphrasia? Aphrixia? Something else?

  • Jessica

    My father who is 45 years old, recently had a stroke 4 months ago. His MCA is 65% blocked. When he first had the stoke the only thing that was affected was his speech. He did not have slurred speech, more like a stutter. The speech cleared up a few weeks after the stroke with lots of practice working with his words. But he has these “episodes” where sometimes he talks very well and at any moment his speech will be very bad. This is usually accompanied by a severe headache. These “episodes” can last anywhere from a week to a couple hours. It is really confusing to him. His neurologist suggested we try for a stent placement in his brain. But he did not qualify for the trial run because he is not 70% or greater blocked. He is currently undergoing medical management to attempt to control these “episodes”. Sadly, it is not helping and the “episodes” are coming more frequent now. He is left handed and his stroke occured in the right temporal area of his brain. Which we have been told controls his speech. I wonder if MIT could possibly activate his left side of his brain and bypass the speech issue he is having?

  • Erica

    I have an uncle that suffered a strove a few years back. The stroke left the right side of his body paralyzed and has caused issues with his speech. He can only say a few “real” words but suprisingly, he can say all curse words. Thanks for this article. I will try to get him to sing what he’s trying to say and maybe we’ll be able to understand him alot better.

  • Shanna

    If one has a stroke on the right side of the brain, which one uses to sing, can one then loose his or her ability to sing while still retaining the ability to talk?

  • SingSong Steven Ahn

    I strongly support your idea and claims. Because human body is one unity, therefore, one organ does coexist with other.

    My Book titled ‘Singsong Therapy can treat Strokes'(To be published in June will show that !!) about ‘Singsong can treat most diseases especially Brain Stroke. Many with stroke cannot speak well as well as some part of body deoes not function as well. Once words can be spoken by the Stroked person, then there is faster recovery.

  • rima

    my mom had a stroke 3 yrs ago and lost her speech. Although she can speak sentences sometimes other time it is not clear. My question is who can i contact for evaluation if there is any hope for ant sort of verbal recovery


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