Parkinson’s disease takes away an ability that we take for granted. When we decide to initiate a movement, such as pick up a pencil or write a note, the little servo-motors in our fine muscles must function with exact precision. When specific muscles contract, other muscles must relax, and they must do so in perfect fashion to create a fine motor movement. The area of the brain that is responsible for coordinating this precise control over our muscles is called the basal ganglia. In the center of the basal ganglia is an area responsible for manufacturing a neurotransmitter called dopamine. In Parkinson’s disease this little factory begins to burn out slowly and scientists do not yet know why. Think of this neurotransmitter as the “fuel” that makes the basal ganglia function. In Parkinson’s disease the well dries up, and the average patient is completely disabled within nine years of diagnosis. At that point they may be wheelchair-bound. The symptoms include stiffness and rigidity, tremor, and slowness of movement. A Parkinson’s patient shuffles when they walk and sometimes will freeze in position, no longer able to initiate movement at all.
Interestingly it has been found that upon hearing certain types of music, a patient with Parkinson’s disease who was unable even to walk, can actually dance! Much like an Alzheimer’s patient becomes revitalized upon hearing a familiar song, a Parkinson’s patient, after hearing a particular beat or rhythm, begins to move flawlessly. Dance therapy classes have opened up nationwide so that patients with Parkinson’s disease can once again feel uninhibited. But what is happening in those patients’ brains? It seems the limbic system is called into action to bring back old memories of days gone by, when they were able to tap their foot to a particular rhythm, or dance the tango with their favorite partner. The limbic system releases the rigidity and stiffness, and the patient is able to move again. Our goal, with the help of the Vanderbilt Brain Institute, is to find the proper rhythm and beat, which will awaken the fine motor control centers. This is not unlike our research evaluating the resynchronization of brain waves in autistic children. It is possible that both are related to a desynchronization phenomenon. Music resynchronizes those one million servo-motors that exist to create the fine motor movement that we all enjoy every day. The Music-Heals Project is dedicated to uncovering the mechanisms behind the powerful interaction between “music and movement” in patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease.