Stroke patients may recover faster after listening to their favorite singer, study shows

HELSINKI, Finland — Stroke patients who spend time listening to their favorite singers during recovery may heal faster, according to a new study. Hits by pop stars can help victims of the condition overcome speech impairment, researchers say.

Exposing patients to vocal music improved their language skills notably more than listening to instrumental tunes or audio books, scientists from the University of Helsinki report. The sounds boost connections between neurons in the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls communication.

“This expands our understanding of music-based neurological rehabilitation methods,” says lead author Dr. Aleksi Sihvonen, a postdoctoral researcher at the university, in a statement. “Listening to vocal music can be considered a measure that enhances conventional forms of rehabilitation in healthcare.”

The study adds to existing evidence music therapy should be prescribed to sufferers.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the time spent in hospital is not stimulating,” explains Sihvonen. “At these times, listening to music could serve as an additional and sensible rehabilitation measure that can have a positive effect on recovery.”

Previous research has shown music is a tonic for stroke patients, stimulating coordination and lifting mood. The latest findings in eNeuro shed fresh light on the mechanism behind the phenomenon. “For the first time, we were able to demonstrate the positive effects of vocal music are related to the structural and functional plasticity of the language network,” says Sihvonen.

People often lose the ability to talk after a stroke, a condition known as aphasia. It’s usually caused when blood supply to the left side of the brain is cut off, causing considerable upset to patients and their families. Current treatments have varying degrees of success, but are not available to sufficient numbers, or provided early enough.

Songs offer a cheap and widely accessible alternative, explains the Finnish team of scientists.

“Listening to vocal music can be considered a measure that enhances conventional forms of rehabilitation in healthcare,” says Sihvonen. “Such activity can be easily, safely, and efficiently arranged even in the early stages of rehabilitation.”

It could be used as a cost-efficient option – especially when other methods are scarce.

The results are based on more than three dozen stroke patients under the age of 80. The participants were randomly selected to take part in the sessions daily, listening to self-selected audiobooks, vocal music or instrumental pieces. They also underwent MRI brain scans and behavioral assessments, and were tracked for three months.

“Results suggest the beneficial effects of vocal music listening on poststroke language recovery are underpinned by structural neuroplasticity changes within the language network,” the authors write. “They extend our understanding of music-based interventions in stroke rehabilitation.”

Researchers say patients often receive insufficient treatment that is predominantly given outside the optimal time window for brain plasticity. “Vocal music listening provides a complementary rehabilitation strategy that could be safely implemented in the early stages of stroke rehabilitation and seems to specifically target language symptoms and recovering language network,” they write. “Clinically, the results provide further evidence that vocal music listening is a feasible tool to stimulate the language network and promote language recovery after stroke.”

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.