How Art Can Heal The Brain : Short Wave Arts therapies appear to ease a host of brain disorders from Parkinson's to PTSD. But these treatments that rely on music, poetry or visual arts haven't been backed by rigorous scientific testing. Now, artists and brain scientists have launched a program to change that. NPR's brain correspondent Jon Hamilton tells us about an initiative called the NeuroArts Blueprint.

How Art Can Heal The Brain

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EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: You're listening to SHORT WAVE...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KWONG: ...From NPR.

AARON SCOTT, HOST:

People with disorders like anxiety and PTSD may get a range of treatments, but there's only one that sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT: NPR's resident brainiac Jon Hamilton is here to explain what a ukulele has to do with that treatment.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Or, as the Hawaiians say, ukulele.

SCOTT: Yes. Hello, Jon. Nice to talk to you.

HAMILTON: Hi, Aaron. How you doing?

SCOTT: Doing great. I'm super excited to get to talk arts and science. So I can totally see how strumming an instrument can be a source of joy and delight, but are you telling me that it can also be a medical treatment?

HAMILTON: Yes. In this case, it is a form of what is known as arts therapy. And if you're thinking that sounds a little bit woo woo, so did I. But these treatments, you know - music, painting, dance, poetry - they are starting to get some cred in the scientific world.

SCOTT: Right.

HAMILTON: And that ukulele treatment, it's become really important to this guy.

MICHAEL SCHNEIDER: My name is Michael Schneider. I am from Marquette, Mich., originally, in the upper peninsula of Michigan, absolutely a gorgeous place to grow up. Joined the Marine Corps in 1994, and I was an active-duty Marine for just short of 22 years.

HAMILTON: So Michael worked on military helicopters and planes. He told me that in 2005, his job led to two separate brain injuries.

SCHNEIDER: I had a traumatic brain injury when I was involved in a helicopter incident onboard a U.S. naval vessel. A portion of the airplane exploded away from the airplane and hit me in the head. Later that same year, I was working in a high-pressure altitude chamber. On the way down from altitude, I had a central nervous system hit of decompression sickness.

SCOTT: Decompression sickness - that sounds scary. What is it?

HAMILTON: It's the bends, basically. So you know when divers come up to the surface too fast...

SCOTT: Mmm hmm.

HAMILTON: ...And there's nitrogen in their body and it starts to form bubbles? Well, that's what happened to Michael. And for him, those bubbles were in his brain, and the result was like having a stroke.

SCOTT: Wow. So between that blow to the head and these bubbles, this guy's brain was pretty rattled.

HAMILTON: Yeah. What's kind of amazing is that he recovered from both of these brain injuries, or at least that's what it seemed like at the time. But over the years, he began to have seizures, you know, lots of them every day. That meant no driver's license. He was also having memory problems, depression, and he developed PTSD. So loud noises, rooms full of people, they would cause this fight-or-flight reaction. Michael told me he was getting treatment at Walter Reed in Bethesda - you know, medication, psychotherapy - but it wasn't really enough.

SCHNEIDER: I'd lost hope. You know, I didn't really believe that I was going to make it through the next couple years just because of not suicidal thoughts or anything but more my brain was just - it was shutting down.

HAMILTON: So the doctors decided to try something different. They sent Michael to an arts therapy program called Creative Forces. It was started by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. And Michael told me that one day he found himself in a room with a music therapist named Rebecca Vaudreuil.

SCHNEIDER: She looked at me and she goes, so what do you want to do? And I go - I saw a piano there in the room. And I was like, well, I'll try playing the piano. I've never done that. I'll play the piano. And so she's like, OK, finger these, do this, you know? And she's kind of getting me to play the piano. And I started to sing the notes. I started to hum the notes.

REBECCA VAUDREUIL: I heard him pitch matching one day, and we started really exploring his voice.

SCHNEIDER: What did we sing, Rebecca, again from the Italian opera I did?

VAUDREUIL: (Singing in Italian).

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, I did some Italian opera.

SCOTT: And it worked?

HAMILTON: And it helped. Michael said he started having fewer seizures, he felt better - oh, and he learned to play the ukulele.

SCHNEIDER: I can't actually play a song, I can't do that. But I can play chords to take my stress level down and I'm able to refocus again in my life. So that's why it's always right here by my computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKELELE MUSIC)

SCOTT: Today, we talk about the healing power of the arts.

HAMILTON: And how scientists plan to measure how music, painting, dance and other arts can rewire the brain.

SCOTT: I'm Aaron Scott.

HAMILTON: And I'm Jon Hamilton.

SCOTT: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKELELE MUSIC)

SCOTT: OK, Jon, so Michael Schneider's experience of soothing his brain with music is - well, it's a great anecdote. But as we've talked about before on SHORT WAVE, anecdotes alone don't make science.

HAMILTON: They do not. Scientists really want something they can measure. They want data. And that has been largely lacking in arts therapy. So that is why a group of people started something called the NeuroArts Blueprint initiative. It's actually a partnership between Johns Hopkins University and the Aspen Institute, and the idea is to bring together scientists and artists. What they hope to accomplish is to put some science behind the way arts affects the brain. So, for example, how does playing the ukulele help you with PTSD?

SCOTT: OK, so I find this super fascinating because I actually got to participate in an early study that investigated a little bit about how art affects the brain. It's a field called neuroesthetics. And a scientist at NYU put me and a number of other subjects into this FMRI machine, and he showed us pictures of all sorts of different kinds of artwork and then watched and studied to try to see, you know, what neural networks were being activated as we looked at these works, particularly the art that we found really moving. But I can imagine it's a big step from measuring how art triggers our brain to actually measuring how art helps the brain. So how are they going about this?

HAMILTON: Well, you know, the experiment you were in - that's sort of just the very beginning of what you need to do to understand how various things are affecting the brain. And the possibilities are getting much better because the technology is improving. I mean, we're on the cusp of much more understanding. So you have devices like FMRI, which you talked about. They are getting able to measure smaller areas in the brain, to be more accurate.

SCOTT: OK.

HAMILTON: There are also devices that measure the electrical signals that are coming from the brain. And the idea here is that you can measure change caused by treatment. You can do a before and after and see what changed in the brain. And once you can do that, it should be possible to measure change from arts therapy.

SCOTT: Very cool, although you say should be, so has anyone actually done this?

HAMILTON: Not much yet, but the NeuroArts initiative is trying to fix that. It includes some really big-name scientists like Dr. Eric Nestler. He directs the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. And I should mention Dr. Friedman used to play the oboe, though he says he wasn't great.

SCOTT: Of course. Of course.

HAMILTON: You know, well, it's a double reed. They're hard.

SCOTT: (Laughter).

HAMILTON: I asked him for an example of how you might measure an arts therapy. And here's what he told me. It has to do with a well-known response to music in people with Alzheimer's.

ERIC NESTLER: You know, there are a lot of anecdotal reports of an elderly individual who is demented, and all of a sudden an old tune comes on, and the family member engages in that tune, might even remember the words of the song, some of the emotional memories related to it. Now, in addition to reporting the behavioral changes, one could identify a greater level of activity in circuits in the brain related to memory and then related to emotions.

SCOTT: That sounds promising, but so far, there aren't any treatments that can actually stop Alzheimer's. So is he saying music can do what medicine can't?

HAMILTON: Well, not exactly. I mean, arts therapies don't work like an antibiotic. They're not going to make a pathogen in your body just disappear.

SCOTT: Right.

HAMILTON: What they do is they take advantage of the connection we know exists between the mind and the body. And in this case, I should point out that the body includes the brain - the physical brain, right?

SCOTT: Yeah.

HAMILTON: So the brain is always rewiring, like when you learn something, another language or musical instruments, right? And the arts are really good at engaging our mind, and that can change the way the brain works for the better. So Eric Nestler - he told me that it's important to understand what arts therapy can and can't do for a brain disease or disorder.

NESTLER: So for Alzheimer's disease, for example, one can demonstrate atrophy of the brain, actual shrinkage of the brain tissue. That's not going to change with music. Music is not all of a sudden going to cause a growth of the brain. But it could make what's left of the brain function better.

SCOTT: This is giving me a whole new love for music. So Jon, you describe the NeuroArts effort as a partnership between scientists and artists. Did you get to talk to any of the artists involved?

HAMILTON: Well, I did talk to one singer that you might have heard of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RENEE FLEMING: (Singing in non-English language).

HAMILTON: That is Renee Fleming, the superfamous soprano and total brain science geek.

SCOTT: That's beautiful. And I got to admit, I love artists who love scientists.

HAMILTON: Oh, me, too. And Renee Fleming has acquired a really deep understanding of brain science. She told me that she arranges to speak with local scientists whenever she's on tour, so I guess it's kind of predictable that she has become a big part of the NeuroArts effort. And even before NeuroArts became a thing, she volunteered to have her own brain scanned at the NIH.

SCOTT: Wow. Of course she did.

HAMILTON: Of course she did. And because we are very lucky, somebody was filming that when it happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're going to start our first scan.

HAMILTON: So we actually know what it sounded like when she did that.

FLEMING: (Singing in non-English language).

HAMILTON: Naturally, I had to ask her about that when we spoke.

FLEMING: I didn't really quite understand what it meant to be in an FMRI machine for 2 hours, but it was interesting. So they had me singing, imagining singing and speaking. And they would have probably guessed that singing would have the largest effect on my brain, but it didn't. It was imagining singing.

HAMILTON: So this kind of shows how science is beginning to understand art and the brain. And I should mention that Fleming's interest in science and medicine goes way back before she ever had her brain scan. She told me that in the early days of her career, she noticed that she was always being approached after performances by really prominent doctors, and apparently, doctors really liked opera. And she also had her own personal experience that sort of made her think about the mind-body connection. She told me that she really loved practicing, but performing could make her physically sick.

FLEMING: I had terrible stage fright. I had somatic pain from performance pressure, which made me kind of research the mind and body connection, which wasn't particularly supported when I was a young singer. It is now.

SCOTT: OK. I can totally see why she's interested in the NeuroArts effort. It's all about that mind-body connection.

HAMILTON: It is. And Fleming pretty much wants all of the things that the initiative wants. So to give a quick list here, the goals of this project are they want to see science and arts come together, scientists and artists, obviously, coming together. They want to see neuroarts be recognized as a field, you know, an academic pursuit. They want to get funding, and they want to know precisely how arts is affecting the body, the brain and our behavior.

SCOTT: Sounds ambitious. Is it going to happen?

HAMILTON: Well, it's looking pretty good. I mean, artists and art therapists are really interested in this. There's a lot of cooperation going on. Scientists are really interested in this, and the technology is beginning to arrive that makes it possible to put data behind these sort of anecdotes that we've all heard.

SCOTT: Right, right. So interest, technology - check. Those are great. But we know that when it comes down to what kind of research scientists actually get to pursue, so much of it revolves around whether they can get funding, especially for a new field like this.

HAMILTON: Absolutely true. And that's where it's important to have some heavy hitters here, and they do. So you've got the National Endowment for the Arts is funding this kind of stuff. You've got the National Institutes of Health that is also funding some of this. And then there are these really important personal connections. So for instance, Renee Fleming is friends with Dr. Francis Collins, who, of course, led the National Institutes of Health for, I think, 12 years. They met at a dinner party. They've stayed friends. And...

SCOTT: (Laughter) Wow.

HAMILTON: ...To me, these two, their friendship - it sort of personifies this coming together of arts and science. I mean, Renee Fleming loves science. Francis Collins loves music. And, I should point out, sometimes they sing together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE")

RENEE FLEMING AND FRANCIS COLLINS: (Singing) 'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary. Hard times, hard times come again no more.

SCOTT: When else are we going to get to go out with a world-class soprano and a world-class scientist serenading us? Thanks so much for this one, Jon.

HAMILTON: Anytime, Aaron.

SCOTT: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez, edited by Stephanie O'Neill and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor, Andrea Kissack is the head of the science desk, Edith Chapin is the executive editor and vice president of news, and Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Aaron Scott. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE")

FLEMING AND COLLINS: (Singing) 'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary. Hard times, hard times, come again no more. Many days you have lingered around my cabin door. Oh, hard times come again no more.

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