Art and music therapy seem to help treat brain disorders. Scientists want to know why

When Michael Schneider’s anxiety and PTSD flare up, he picks up the ukulele he keeps next to his computer.

“I can’t really play a song,” says Schneider, who suffered two serious brain injuries during nearly 22 years in the Marines. “But I can play chords to reduce my stress level.”

It’s a technique Schneider learned through Creative Forces, an art therapy initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

It is also an example of how arts therapies are increasingly being used to treat brain conditions such as PTSD, depression, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

But most of these treatments, ranging from music to poetry to visual arts, have still not been subjected to rigorous scientific testing. So brain artists and scientists have launched an initiative called NeuroArts Blueprint to change that.

The initiative is the result of a partnership between the Johns Hopkins International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics and the Health, Medicine and Society program at the Aspen Institute. Its leadership includes soprano Renée Fleming, actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, and Dr. Eric Nestler, who directs the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

One of the goals of the NeuroArts initiative is to measure how arts therapies change the brains of people like Schneider.

“I had a traumatic brain injury when I was involved in a helicopter incident aboard a US Navy ship,” he explains. It was in 2005.

Later that same year, he suffered sudden decompression – the airman’s version of turns – while training for high-altitude flights. The result was like a stroke.

“On the right side of my body, I lost all feeling,” he says.

Schneider recovered from both incidents. But they took a toll on his brain. And in 2014 he started having serious problems.

“I had this progression of really bad seizures,” he says. “At one point, I was having 20 to 40 seizures a day.”

He also developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, and depression. Schneider went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda for treatment. But he was no better.

“I had lost hope,” he says. “I didn’t really believe I was going to survive for the next two years. My brain was shutting down.”

It was then that military doctors referred Schneider to Rebecca Vaudreuil, a music therapist with Creative Forces and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation. Early on, Vaudreuil learned something intriguing about the great Marine from Marquette, Michigan.

“He had a history in the theater arts,” she says. “And so I could say, you know, there was a boot there.”

Vaudreuil makes Schneider play a few notes on the piano.

“I started humming the notes and she was like, ‘You can sing,'” he recalls.

So they sang Andrea Bocelli’s opera hit Con Te Partirò.

This led to many musical explorations, including the ukulele. It also helped Schneider start talking about his struggles and gave him a way to reduce his outbursts and relieve some of his anxiety and PTSD.

“Relearning music took away that fight or flight, that ingrained element of how I train,” he says. “He was able to open up all these new pathways through my brain.”

Personal experiences like Schneider’s are beginning to have scientific confirmation, Vaudreuil says.

“We know that when we receive music, even when we hear music, we activate multiple parts of the brain,” she says. And studies suggest it strengthens brain circuits that help repair damage.

There are also clues that the brain changes in response to other art therapies, such as dance, poetry, painting, sculpture, and even leatherwork. But so far, there haven’t been many scientific studies to back this up.

“We’re going to have to provide strong empirical data demonstrating that there is efficacy,” says Nestler, co-chair of the advisory board for the NeuroArts initiative.

“It’s harder in some ways to do that with music or art than with a new drug,” he says. “On the other hand, I think it’s very doable.”

Nestler says advances in brain imaging technology make it possible to objectively measure brain changes produced by art therapies.

For example, there are many anecdotal reports of patients with Alzheimer’s disease who can no longer speak, but will start to sing and become more interactive when they hear a familiar song.

“Now, in addition to signaling behavioral changes, one could identify a greater level of activity in brain circuits related to memory and emotion,” says Nestler.

Fleming, another co-chair of the advisory board, actually saw the effect of singing on her own brain.

During a visit to the National Institutes of Health in 2017, she agreed to perform inside an MRI scanner.

“They made me sing, imagine singing and talking,” she says. “They probably would have guessed that singing would have the biggest effect on my brain, but it didn’t. It was imagining singing.”

For Fleming, the existence of something like the NeuroArts Blueprint represents a significant and important shift in thinking from the early days of his career.

“I had terrible stage fright. I had somatic pain from the pressure of performing,” she says. But back then, doctors tended to discount symptoms involving the mind-body connection.

So now Fleming makes it a point to use his performance travels to meet brain scientists and arts therapists.

“I saw a music therapist working with a man who had had a stroke and couldn’t speak,” she says. “And in a singing session, he could communicate.”

In order to understand why this happened, she says, neuroscientists and artists need to create a new area of ​​expertise: neuroarts.

Nestler, the neuroscientist, agrees.

“We realized how our two worlds can merge in this really interesting way,” he says.

But Nestler says that even with good scientific evidence, arts therapies are likely to face hurdles in gaining widespread acceptance and support.

“No one asks about paying $100,000 or more for spine surgery,” he says. But music therapy coverage for a brain condition, he says, “is going to be a major struggle.”

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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