How singing may help stroke victims recover speech

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Patients who lose the ability to speak after suffering a stroke may be able to regain their speech using a novel technique that effectively reroutes the way the brain processes language, according to research presented this past weekend at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The technique, known as Musical Intonation Therapy, was first developed in the 1970s, when doctors realized that stroke patients who had lost the ability to speak could still sing, the Wall Street Journal reports. Yet it hasn’t been widely used—or fully understood—in the years since. This new study, led by a Harvard neurologist Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, may go some way toward changing that.

The research included stroke patients who had suffered significant speech loss after damage to the region of the brain’s left hemisphere involved in speech processing. Yet, by relying instead on the region of the brain’s right hemisphere associated with music, in the study, patients were able regain speech through song. One patient who had long struggled to speak, for example, was able to sing, “I am thirsty,” while another was eventually able to recite his address, the AFP reports. While the novel approach to speech therapy has existed for decades, this latest research is the first to use brain scans to document the way the brain rewires language processing—from the “speech center” in the left hemisphere, to the “music center” in the right. Of course, while this promising speech therapy approach may offer hope to victims devastated by stroke, Schlaug and colleagues emphasize that much remains to be understood about just how it works—and what distinguishes those patients who can go on to learn more words beyond those taught during the 14 to 16 weeks of therapy. As he told the Wall Street Journal: “If you don’t hear the words you want to say, then it doesn’t really matter whether you can produce them.” In the course of Schlaug’s research, about two thirds of patients were able to continue learning new words once therapy had ended.