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How the Brain Responds to Music

Neurosurgeons measure neural activity during surgery as patients listen to music.

Lately, when neurosurgeon Ali Rezai implants a deep brain electrode into a Parkinson’s patient, he plays a special classical composition from the Cleveland Orchestra. The music isn’t designed to keep him focused during surgery, but rather to explore the effect that it has on the brain. His patients, who are receiving an implant that helps alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, are awake during the surgery and can tell Rezai how the music makes them feel as he observes what it does to their brain.

“We know music can calm, influence creativity, can energize. That’s great. But music’s role in recovering from disease is being ever more appreciated,” Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, told msnbc.com.

Prescription for helping brain injuries heal?
At Cleveland Clinic, Rezai and other neurosurgeons collaborate with The Cleveland Orchestra to compose classical pieces to play for patients during brain operations. Rezai then gauges how individual neurons fire when the head hears those foreign chords and cadences, and he compares that reaction to how the neurons behave when familiar songs fill the operating room. Hair-sized sensors placed in the brain translate those signals to an amplifier. Study results are expected in three to six months.

The firing of a neuron “may sound like static to some, but it’s music to my ears,” said Rezai. Patients tell him when the music soothes them, and Rezai can hear the corresponding changes in a single neuron. The research, he said, can serve as a keystone for other studies of music’s potential in treating people with traumatic brain injuries, stroke, multiple sclerosis and severe depression.

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