Parkinson’s patients, for example, often experience “breaks” or “freezing,” and have trouble initiating movement. “It's not entirely clear why freezing happens,” Grahn says. But “one thing that people have observed is that if you play music that has a steady beat, or sometimes even just a metronome with a steady beat, these patients seem to have improvements in their walking.” Grahn has also observed music seeming effective in elongating and improving the gait of Parkinson's patients, which is often jerky and unsteady.
Still, there are a lot of variables that haven't been studied yet, from figuring out the strength and duration of these apparent effects to whether an individual’s musical abilities have an impact. A major boon, Grahn says, would be obtaining data—much, much more of it, and from patients in real-world situations.
“Patients really vary; some have a very fast progression in the disease, some have a slow progression,” she says. “It's impossible to test enough patients to really capture every kind of patient with every kind of musical ability in the lab.”
She sees The Sync Project (which consulted with her about her research in the past) as an intriguing opportunity. “You can imagine it the same way that your phone knows where you are, they have these accelerometers in it. When you're walking, it jars the phone,” she explains. “A phone can also deliver music. So it'd be very easy to have an app for Parkinson's patients that record their walking and records what music they were listening to at the time, and then sends that data back to a researcher.”
* * *
Kopikis agrees that the lab structure in research can limit what kind of data scientists can gather. “Some of the leading scientists in the field have been working for 30 years with dementia and Alzheimer's patients, whose studies are based on observation,” he says. “In many of these populations, you cannot tell exactly what is going on by just observing. Where scientists get very excited is the ability to combine what they're observing with a whole plethora of biometrics that can lead them to much more accurate understanding of what actually is going on.”
Recently, Zatorre has been gauging interest in the program from research groups around the world, and says he has already found many of them to be enthusiastic.
“I think that it could create a good dialogue between scientists and industry. That could be very valuable for both sides, of course. Furthermore, it could help to jump-start direct applications of our research,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, Zatorre does warn that trying to use music as treatment can be risky—especially for a serious condition like Parkinson's.
“It's very complicated to do research with clinical populations because you're dealing with people who have some disorder; you have to be quite careful,” Zatorre says. “You can't tell them all, ‘We're going to try a treatment on you and have you forego the standard treatments that you would know are probably useful.’”
Still, if a patient finds that a certain song can improve her mood and outlook, why not try to reap the benefits and learn more about what’s going on?
“I think there's a lot of hype about what music can do,” Grahn says. “I don't think it's a sort of cure-all or replacement for a lot of things, but I certainly think it has potential. And the great thing about it is there is generally no bad side effects, it gives patients a sense of control over their treatment, and that's really important.”