Study: Healing power from singing boosts Parkinson’s patients’ moods, motor function

AMES, Iowa — Singing is a fun way to exercise our vocal chords and express ourselves. But for Parkinson’s patients, it may be especially therapeutic. A recent study shows it can also boost mood and motor function in those battling the disease.

The findings from the Iowa State University pilot study show that group singing improves mood in people with Parkinson’s disease similarly to what is seen from medication treatments. The new study expands on prior research that found singing helps with respiratory and swallow function.

Researchers recorded blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels of 17 participants in a therapeutic singing group. The participants were also asked to report their levels of sadness, anxiety, happiness and anger before and after a one-hour singing session.

“We see the improvement every week when they leave singing group. It’s almost like they have a little pep in their step. We know they’re feeling better and their mood is elevated,” says study lead Elizabeth Stegemöller, an assistant professor of kinesiology at the university, in a media release. “Some of the symptoms that are improving, such as finger tapping and the gait, don’t always readily respond to medication, but with singing they’re improving.”

There have been few studies on how singing affects physical and emotional measures in people with Parkinson’s disease. Although not statistically significant, the results showed a reduction in all three markers — blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels. And while there was not a great difference in happiness or anger following group singing, participants did report feeling less anxious and sad.

Researchers say the results, though promising, do not tell us why we see behavioral changes from singing. They are now looking at blood samples to determine levels of oxytocin — a hormone the body produces during bonding experiences. The blood samples are also clues to the brain’s neuroplasticity — ability to offset insults from injuries or disease — and inflammation levels that show the degree of disease progression.

“Part of the reason cortisol is going down could be because the singing participants feel positive and less stress in the act of singing with others in the group. This suggests we can look at the bonding hormone, oxytocin,” says researcher Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development family studies with the university. “We’re also looking at heart rate and heart rate variability, which can tell us how calm and physiologically relaxed the individual is after singing.”

Stegemöller cautions that these results are preliminary. But she says the data does show significant improvements from singing that closely match the benefits of taking medication. With Parkinson’s disease numbers expected to double in the next 20 years, researchers are cautiously optimistic about therapeutic singing as an affordable and accessible treatment option for people with the condition, with the potential to improve motor symptoms and quality of life.

That is something to sing about.

Results from the pilot study were presented at the Society for Neuroscience 2018 conference.

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