Last week, an Arizona publication noted what too many TBI survivors know: brain injury can make certain sounds intolerable. Hyperacusis, an extreme sensitivity to sound, is a common effect of a neurological disorder. “In hyperacusis, the symptoms are ear pain, annoyance, and general intolerance to many sounds that most people are unaffected by.” Additionally, hyperacusis is often accompanied by “the hearing of sound when no external sound is present,” known as tinnitus. It has been found that about 20 percent of the population suffers from this debilitating condition and it is the top service-related compensation for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Yes, tinnitus may go away for some, but it’s a lifelong condition for others. (Notable individuals with tinnitus includes President Ronald Reagan.)
Given that, it’s a surprise that studies have found that music can actually help the brain heal from an injury. “If you’re trying to restore neuroplasticity in the brain, to re-establish some of the connections that were there before the injury, music can be a big help,” said a neuroradiologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center regarding a study at the hospital last year. Multiple sources, though, note that what one listens to must already be a favorite tune or a favorite music genre to have the appropriate effect. “If you love it, it loves you back. Signs of the musically activated brain included increasing the activity and connections in memory and emotional centers.” With this in mind, the University of New Mexico has started a Neuro Choir that helps those with brain injuries work on their communication abilities, socialize with other members of the choir and gain the benefits of music therapy. “One of the theories is that it helps to pull along the words especially if it’s been a highly learned song. Whereas if they were just trying to say the words in a conversation it may not come out,” said Richardson of music’s communications benefit.
Music therapy is already an accepted means of treatment for such conditions as autism and PTSD in the military. Neurologic Music Therapy is still in its earlier stages, though government-based studies note that, “from a neuroscientific perspective, indulging in music is considered as one of the best cognitive exercises.” (However, it is partially because it is such a cognitive activity that it can be intolerable for those with tbi.) As doctors learn to better treat veterans and others with hearing problems/ear disorders, by testing such treatments as sleeping with white noise, perhaps the healing benefit of song will have the chance to be experienced by all tbi patients.
(The National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institute of Health, just posted the results of a study that shows that tbi can cause musical halluciations. Tinnitus and music hallucinations have the commonality of “hearing” an often intolerable imagined sound, but both stop short of psychosis, as the patients ultimately realize the true source of the “sound”.)