San Diego, California (CNN) — When mothers speak to children, it’s often in a singsong tone. That’s no coincidence, scientists say, given that music and language are so intricately linked in the brain.
Scientists are using this fundamental connection between song and speech to treat patients who have lost their ability to communicate. There’s evidence that music can be used to help people with severe brain impairments learn how to speak again, scientists said over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, are treating stroke patients who have little or no spontaneous speech by associating melodies with words and phrases.
“Music, and music-making, is really a very special form of a tool or an intervention that can be used to treat neurological disorders, said Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel and Harvard University. “There’s rarely any other activity that could really activate or engage this many regions of the brain that is experienced as being a joyous activity.”
There are between 750,000 and 800,000 strokes per year in the United States, and about 200,000 of them result in a kind of language disorder called aphasia, he said. About one-third of those patients have aphasia so severe that they become non-fluent, meaning about 60,000 to 70,000 patients per year could benefit from the music therapy.
It is being scientifically explored only at Beth Israel, but there are speech therapists throughout the United States who are using some kind of music treatment. About 25 to 30 patients have been described in published research papers, but there may be hundreds or thousands of others treated in nonscientific settings, Schlaug said.
The left side of the brain plays a key role in speech and language ability. But the right side of the brain has the capability to become enhanced and change its structure to compensate for left-side deficits, researchers have found.
Schlaug’s group’s technique, Melodic Intonation Therapy, involves singing tones with the patient and having the patient repeat words and phrases to the sound of those tones. Melody and rhythm are incorporated in getting the patients, who would otherwise not be able to speak, to sing.