Tonic for the Brain: Arias from Cincinnati Opera

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CCM student Tyler Alessi, left, and CCM graduate Samina Aslam, perform during a celebration of the UC Medical Center’s new partnership with Cincinnati Opera in the hospital’s lobby. Photos by Cindy Starr / Mayfield Clinic.

The power of music, with all of its beauty and adjunct neurological benefits, swept through the lobby of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center (UCMC) on Wednesday as the hospital celebrated a new partnership with Cincinnati Opera. Among those enjoying the occasion – which included arias and Broadway tunes from four gifted young vocalists — were four specialists from the UC Neuroscience Institute who helped make it happen: Drs. Sid Khosla, Charles Kuntz, IV, John M. Tew, Jr., and Mario Zuccarello. The UC Neuroscience Institute is one of four institutes of the UC College of Medicine and UC Health.

It is perhaps no surprise that the four neuroscientists share a passion for opera, a neurological triumph blending sight, sound, language, voice and soul.

“Music involves the entire brain, or almost the entire brain,” said Dr. Khosla, Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology at UC and Director of the UC Health Voice and Swallowing Center.

In a 2009 interview with CNN, Dr. Wendy Magee, International Fellow in Music Therapy at London’s Institute of Neuropalliative Rehabilitation, described music as a “mega-vitamin for the brain” that could influence and improve motor function, communication and even cognition.

Voice specialist Sid Khosla, MD

As such, researchers have found that music, with its complex and widespread neural pathways, enables some individuals with neurological diseases or disorders to rise above limitations in specific parts of the brain. The act of singing employs pathways that are different from those used in speaking, for example, and people who stutter, have suffered a stroke, or suffer from spasmodic dystonia may benefit from music therapy, a type of task-specific training, Dr. Khosla said.

The movie, The King’s Speech, is an example where stuttering abates when music is playing in the background. “We have a lot of different theories about why we have task specificity as human beings, and they’re fascinating, but we don’t know for sure,” Dr. Khosla said. “The newer theories are evolving from brain imaging of the gray matter and the white matter tracts, which facilitate electrical connections between different parts of the brain.”

At UC Health Drake Center, rehabilitation therapists employ music in the treatment of stroke survivors who suffer from aphasia, a language impairment that makes communication difficult. “Often folks cannot speak fluently, but if you give them a familiar song, they can sing it well,” said Paige Thomas, PT-MSR, NCS, MHA, manager of outpatient physical therapy and occupational therapy. “It helps tap into those rote and automatic speech patterns.”

Alberto Espay, MD, a neurologist with the James J. and Joan A. Gardner Center for Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders, says the rhythm and melody of music can replace some of the abnormal motor programs in the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease “with more ‘harmonic,’ better sequenced programs.”

The best example of this, Dr. Espay said, is seen in patients who have problems with gait and who are at risk of suddenly freezing in place while walking. These patients can experience a restoration of gait with music, Dr. Espay said. “The type of music that works best will vary from person to person. The optimal music is something that resonates with the patient and has a beat that is contagious enough that it can be brought to mind during potentially freezing moments.”

Wednesday’s performers¹, current and former opera students from UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, performed a few selections that might do the trick, including the Toreador’s Song from Bizet’s Carmen², and the famous Brindisi drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata.

Samina Aslam performs Puccini.

Other selections, including Puccini’s glorious “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, might play a healing role for patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

Cathy Crain, Chairman of the Cincinnati Opera Board of Trustees, who attended the UCMC event, shared a story about her own mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. “My mother raised us all to love music, particularly opera, and now, when it’s a little hard for her to focus on things, if we put an opera on, she will actually sit for two hours and listen,” Ms. Crain said. “And it is the most wonderful thing. In fact, I get chills thinking about it, because she sits there and smiles the whole time. The music brings a peace and joy to her that’s incredible to see. It’s worth everything to me.”

Ms. Thomas echoed that sentiment. “Everyone gets more excited and motivated when they hear a familiar song they enjoy,” she said. “That can be part of a social connection for folks. Music is one of the few things that pretty much everyone can participate in, either through humming, singing, dancing, tapping a foot, even when seated. We use music in our stroke and Parkinson’s wellness classes to help facilitate the mood of the class as well as give some rhythm to assist in movements.”

The partnership between Cincinnati Opera and the UC Medical Center will result in 18 public performances over the next three years at the UC Medical Center for staff, visitors, patients and physicians. In return, UC Health will provide enhanced wellness and voice care, in the words of Opera Board President Bob Olson, “for our invaluable professional and amateur singers.”

Brian Gibler, MD, President and CEO of the UCMC, said the partnership was something to sing about. “Researchers have long studied the curative benefits of music and how it stimulates the brain,” he said. “We can all agree that music influences our lives in many ways and is considered to be the universal language. Joining medicine and music, this new duet between two longstanding institutions can provide a diverse healing environment for our patients and their families, in perfect harmony.”

Mr. Olson also announced that Cincinnati Opera and UCMC would once again team up on World Voice Day, a free public event scheduled for Saturday, April 20, at Music Hall. He also announced that the International Conference on Advances in Quantitative Laryngology, Voice and Speech Research will be held in the United States for the first time, with Cincinnati as the host city. Cincinnati Opera will host and provide entertainment for a celebration dinner at Music Hall on June 3.

–Cindy Starr

¹ CCM students Tyler Alessi, Reilly Nelson and James Onstad, and CCM graduate Samina Aslam.

² You can listen to a Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Carmen at 12:30 p.m. EST on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 (in Cincinnati on WGUC 90.9-FM).

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