Singing Therapy Shows Promise In Rewiring Brain After Stroke

For stroke survivors struggling with aphasia, a language disorder that affects the ability to speak, read, and write, traditional speech therapy can be a long and challenging road. But a new study from University of Helsinki researchers suggests that singing may offer a promising alternative, helping to rebuild the brain’s language networks and improve communication skills.

The research, published in the journal eNeuro, focused on a group of 28 stroke survivors with chronic aphasia — meaning their language difficulties had persisted for at least six months after their stroke. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive a four-month singing intervention, which involved weekly group singing sessions and at-home practice using a specially designed tablet app. The other half received standard care.

Before and after the intervention period, all participants underwent a battery of language assessments as well as MRI brain scans. The results were striking: compared to the control group, those in the singing group showed significant improvements in their naming abilities — a key aspect of expressive language that is often impaired in aphasia. What’s more, the brain scans revealed that these behavioral improvements were accompanied by measurable changes in the structure of the brain’s language networks.

“For the first time, our findings demonstrate that the rehabilitation of patients with aphasia through singing is based on neuroplasticity changes, that is, the plasticity of the brain,” says study author Aleksi Sihvonen, researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Using advanced imaging techniques, Finnish researchers were able to map the wiring of the brain’s white matter, which consists of the long, cable-like nerve fibers that connect different regions of the brain. They found that participants in the singing group showed increased connectivity in several key language pathways, including the arcuate fasciculus and the frontal aslant tract in the left hemisphere of the brain, as well as the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres.

The singing intervention also appeared to boost the volume of gray matter — the brain tissue that contains most of the neurons — in the left frontal lobe, particularly in a region known as Broca’s area that is critical for speech production. The degree of increase in gray matter volume in this area correlated with the magnitude of improvement in naming ability, suggesting a direct link between the structural brain changes and the behavioral outcomes.

“These positive changes were associated with patients’ improved speech production,” explains Sihvonen.

Researchers believe singing is a potent form of language therapy with how it engages multiple neural networks simultaneously. When we sing, we not only activate the language areas of the brain, but also the regions involved in melody, rhythm, emotion, and motor control. This rich tapestry of activation may provide a sort of “backdoor” into the damaged language networks, allowing the brain to rebuild and rewire itself more efficiently.

Singing may also have important psychological and social benefits for stroke survivors. Aphasia can be a deeply isolating condition, making it difficult to connect with others and leading to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and depression. Group singing provides a supportive and stimulating environment where participants can bond over a shared challenge and experience the joy of making music together. This sense of community and accomplishment may in turn boost motivation and engagement with the therapy.

“Patients can also sing with their family members, and singing can be organized in health care units as a group-based, cost-efficient rehabilitation,” concludes Sihvonen.

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