The biggest mystery of the human body is the brain. The brain is essential to life, and can severely alter you way of living if damaged. But, step-by-step, neurologists are researching and documenting possible ways to restore brain function after a serious injury.
What’s the newest discovery? People with left hemisphere brain damage, who often struggle to speak words, might be able to restore regular speech function by singing.
According to a recent article from Today, decades of documented cases show that patients with left hemisphere brain damage often struggle to speak, but can sing words easily. The simplest explanation is that the left hemisphere is specialized for speaking, while the right hemisphere is wired to carry a tune.
Gabby Giffords, a former Arizona congresswoman, was shot three years ago in a Tucson shopping center: her left hemisphere was severely damaged. In the time since, Giffords has improved leaps and bounds on the road to recovery, but still struggles to speak. Giffords suffers from what is called non-fluent aphasia, according to the article. Aphasia is a disorder caused from damage to regions of the brain that control language and can make speaking, reading, and writing difficult.
In a recent interview after an impressive skydiving trip, Giffords struggled to answer questions in full sentences, but sang two full lines of the song “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” People who suffer from aphasia, can often sing songs they learned before the brain damage.
The melody and memorized words to songs like “Happy Birthday” make their home in the right hemisphere of the brain, and are therefore accessible to people with damaged left hemispheres. Because of this, evidence has emerged that those patients can use singing to relearn to speak.
A trial of what’s called medical intonation therapy has been tested over the past three years. A phrase is sung to a patient and the patient is asked to sing it back. The simple phrase, such as “It’s Thursday,” is set to the first notes of a simple melody, like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” After practicing that, the researcher will shift to saying the same phrase with heavy intonation—making the voice go up and down on each syllable—and the patient will repeat that back. After more practice, the patient will begin to try saying the phrase normally.
Simply put, the melodic intonation therapy is tricking the right side of the brain into taking over for the left when it comes to language and communication.
This process can take days or weeks, depending on the patient, but after they’ve mastered the technique they can apply the skill to say just about anything. According to the article, the patients are learning to “hear” what they want to say first, and are then able to plan the appropriate intonation.
This means that patients have to do a lot of thinking before speaking, so speech isn’t as quick or spontaneous as before brain damage, but it is still speech. It’s still giving people who suffer from brain damage what may be missed most: a voice.