Bringing back the groove

Music has power – it's a certain fact that few, if any, will deny. From the earliest of our days, our mothers sing us lullabies, and later as children we learn ABC's and nursery rhymes to sweet little tunes. Music has the power to make us believe in something greater than ourselves. It crosses cultural, generational and racial barriers. It is the sure go-to when we're feeling low in spirits or high as a kite, and on more than one occasion has been just the romantic backdrop needed to make heartstrings tug. We each have a certain soundtrack to our lives – rhythms that inspire, beats that blare and grooves that rock.

Considering that music is such an integral part of our modern-day culture, it shouldn't come as a surprise that up-and-coming researchers are looking at its power. But still, the concept that music can help in the healing of those who suffer from Parkinson's disease is oddly surprising.

Working in the lab of Dr. Lesley Brown, U of L neuroscience PhD student Natalie de Bruin (BSc '06, MSc '08)

Natalie de Bruin finds it satisfying to make a difference, through her research, in people's lives.
is contributing to a study on how music affects the gait of people with the degenerative disorder. The study emerged from anecdotal evidence that suggests that listening to music could help people with Parkinson's move with greater control and ease.

"There was an example of a lady who had Parkinson's and was severely debilitated, but when you played ABBA's Dancing Queen, she would go from being almost frozen to dancing with her husband," explains de Bruin.

For people with Parkinson's disease, things most of us take for granted – like grocery shopping or collecting the mail – can become monumental challenges. The disorder causes a shortage of dopamine in the brain, resulting in rigid muscles, tremors and slowed movements.

As a result of these movement challenges, people are at risk of falling and injuring themselves, especially the elderly. It's a disease that robs people of their independence and takes away the joy of movement. But, through the use of music, de Bruin is finding, it doesn't have to remain that way.

Working together, the U of L, the University of Calgary and Dalhousie University are collaborating on a number of projects related to music and movement. De Bruin is contributing to a 12-week study with patients from both Lethbridge (which is known for its large senior-citizen population) and Halifax.

In the experimental group, Parkinson's patients were given iPods loaded with songs that matched the rhythm of their own stereotypical walking patterns. Three days a week, participants listened to the music while walking. Those in the control group went about their normal day-to-day activities without music. The project has relied on sophisticated biomedical engineering devices like motion capture cameras (at the U of L) and pressure-sensitive floors (at Dalhousie University) to objectively assess changes in how participants walk.

After preliminary evaluation, the results are pointing to the fact that music really does aid in movement. "It's possible that music may offer a safe walking intervention for many Parkinson's patients," says de Bruin. "We want this to be something individuals can enjoy and continue using."

Unlike other modes of physiotherapy for Parkinson's, walking is less repetitive and listening to music adds an element of fun to the activity.

For de Bruin, the most satisfying component of her PhD research has been working with the participants.

"I've had the opportunity to find out how participants have benefited from the research we're doing," she says. "It's gratifying to know that what I'm doing is making a difference for them."

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