Singing Could Aid Stroke Recovery

Stroke victims who can no longer speak may now be able to regain their ability to communicate through singing, according to a recent Harvard Medical School study.

HMS professor Gottfried Schlaug and his research team have seen promising signs in the preliminary results of their first clinical trial of melodic intonation therapy, which can circumvent the effects of aphasia, the loss of verbal communication.

Schlaug’s research team hopes the study will encourage broader acceptance of melodic intonation therapy as a form of treatment for stroke victims, according to Andrea C. Norton, a research associate for Schlaug at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital.

For patients with damage in the brain’s language center in the left hemisphere, the treatment activates a mirror image of the language center in the singing center of the brain located in the right hemisphere, Norton said.

“Our hypothesis that melodic intonation therapy would shift a patient’s language center from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere is exactly what we’ve seen, which is very exciting,” said Sarah Marchina, a research fellow at Beth Israel who also works with Schlaug.


Norton said that the study’s most promising results lie in the therapy’s accessibility. Any caretaker­­­­­, regardless of their musical background or level of expertise, can be trained to administer melodic intonation therapy, she said.

The ongoing study is the first to closely examine the effectiveness of this form of therapy, according to Norton.

“The treatment itself was based on nearly a century of clinical observation that many stroke survivors are able to sing words they are unable to speak,” said Norton, who noted that melodic intonation therapy was first developed in Boston in the 1970s.

Schlaug, who studies the effects of music on the human brain, could not be reached for comment because he is out of town for a conference.

Melodic intonation therapy teaches patients to communicate by singing while rhythmically tapping each syllable with their left hand, according to a chapter written by the research team.

“Therapists are often reluctant to sing, but the truth is neither therapists nor patients need to be a musician or singer to benefit from this therapy,” Norton said. “Improvement is possible even when those involved have difficulty carrying a tune.”

Melodic intonation therapy can be helpful for a patient for more than ten years after the person experiences a stroke. In the past, it was believed that the treatment would not work for aphasia patients who did not receive therapy within 12 months after their strokes, according to Norton.

With the U.S. population rapidly aging and the number of stroke patients multiplying, melodic intonation therapy may present huge opportunities, Norton said.

“The road to recovery for aphasia patients is a long one,” Norton said. “But there is certainly hope.”