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Colorado scientists study the healing effects of music on the brain

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DENVER — COVID case numbers are trending upwards again in the United States and the wounds of the pandemic—physical and mental—aren’t going anywhere. Some scientists are asking, could one prescription to help promote healing and resiliency be music?

Dr. Christophe Jackson thinks so. Jackson has pursued both music and science for his entire life. At four years old, he began taking piano lessons. When he had to decide what path to continue on in college, his solution was simple: both. He now holds doctorates in biology, engineering, and music.

Jackson became increasingly interested in the intersection of music and science—an area that has remained somewhat unknown. He thinks the dichotomy of arts and science has held people back from looking deeper into the connection between the two.

“It wasn't until we started looking at the neuroscience that we started realizing, 'No, [the connection] really does exist,” he said.

While completing his postdoc at Tulane University, Jackson compared the brains of musicians and non-musicians. He examined electrical activity in the brain after playing random music tones, discovering that musicians made broader connections.

He explained: “The only thing that meant was, not that one had a bigger brain physically per se, but a lot of the neuronal connectionsmusicians could make them more easily. So that meant that they were actively using more of their cortex.”

Dr. Jackson playing the piano in his scrubs.

But Jackson thinks there is even more to music. From his personal experiences, he thinks music could help people cope with stress and heal, especially frontline health care workers during the pandemic.

Jackson worked in a COVID-19 unit during the pandemic. “I had to isolate. I couldn't see my parents or my family members for months… Not only was I the worker that had to take care of others, [but] I was also at risk every second, every minute, every hour, every day,” he said.

Dr. Marc Moss, a Professor of Medicine and the Head of the Division of Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care Medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, has been working on how to support health care workers with their psychological distress. 

“About 20 years ago we started to investigate this with some other ICU nurses that were colleagues and collaborators," Moss said. "And we noticed this is a big problem, that many intensive care nurses and other healthcare professionals had signs of burnout, depression, symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that were on the order of what we would see in people returning from military conflicts like in Afghanistan or Iraq or the Vietnam War.”

Through a grant provided by the National Endowment of the Arts, Moss collaborated with the Ponzio Creative Arts Therapy Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado and Lighthouse Writers Workshop to develop the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab, or CORAL. The program was established just before the pandemic.

In 2021, CORAL enrolled 150 subjects, separated into three cohorts. Each cohort could experience four different forms of creative arts therapy for 12 weeks: music, art, dance and writing. Another portion of each cohort did not experience any form to act as the control group. By having all subjects fill out before and after surveys, the program can then analyze the effects of the therapy.

Tony Edelblute is the music therapist for CORAL. He is also a Licensed Psych Clinician at Children's Hospital Colorado.

First, Edelblute has the group get to know one another. Then he has participants bring in a favorite song and has the group discuss why the individual might like the song.

“It's really more based on what people like and what moves a person...because the same song will have a different impact on different people,” said Edelblute.

He continued, “Music is just another way to look at like, how do I feel emotionally? Sometimes words almost get in the way.”

Edelblute wraps up the 12 weeks with song creation. Each cohort he has led in therapy has produced an expressive song.

“I love writing songs with people. It's maybe my favorite thing,” he declared.

The entire CORAL team looks forward to analyzing the results of their study. But for Moss, one thing is already very clear: “There’s a need for this. In general, when you do a study, one of the big barriers you run into is trying to get people to sign up for the study. We have a waiting list. People want to be a part of this.”

Like CORAL therapists, researchers, and participants, Jackson thinks there is something exceptional about music.

“There's something incredibly special about it. Even if we try to break down the science of it, the deeper we go, the more we appreciate the complexity and the sophistication and the intricacies that make it something worthy of study,” he said.

He always tells people that there is a reason they go to music events—something that has been greatly missing for a year and a half. He thinks it gives people an outlet for their emotions.

Jackson concluded, “They didn't realize how much they missed it or appreciated it, until it was gone from them for a year and a half… So, we need these things. It really is that simple.”


The above videos were produced in collaboration with NOVA as part of an ongoing project. You can watch the first video from the project here.

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