Gabby Giffords Speaks But Sings Better

I’ve always been struck by brain’s capacity for musical memory.

When you recall songs that were popular when you were young, don’t you remember every lyric? Every nuance of the rhythm? Even the little peculiarities of the way the singer sang each word?

All this, when you can hardly remember what you ate for dinner two days ago.

If you watched the ABC News special, Gabby and Mark: Courage and Hope, you got a glimpse of how powerful a force music can be.

As you all no doubt know, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords suffered a gunshot wound to the head in an assassination attempt in January. She spent 5 months in the hospital recovering from her traumatic brain injury. She continues to receive 2 hours of vigorous physical and speech therapy each day at home.

Diane Sawyer’s report began with photos and videos of Giffords at various stages of her recovery, and ended with an interview of Gabby and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. Mark and Gabby tell the story of her recovery  in the new book Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.

Language and the Brain

As we reported in a guest blog by music therapist Shanna Clark, some of Gabby’s remarkable progress has been aided by music therapists.

Photo Credit: How Stuff Works

The main language centers are located on the left side of the brain. There are two main language centers in the brain, called Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas.

Broca’s area is associated with the production of speech. It controls the flow of words from brain to mouth. Wernicke’s area is associated with the interpretation and understanding of speech.

Aphasia is an impairment of language ability. It can range from having difficulty remembering words to being completely unable to speak, read, or write. As a result of her brain injury, Gabby Giffords suffers from aphasia- the language pathways in her brain have been damaged.

Music in the Brain

However, research has shown that music stimulates multiple areas in the brain. And tapping into those pathways can be a way to reteach brain injury victims to speak.

Giffords’music therapist, Meaghan Morrow compares the process to a freeway detour. :

Music is that other road to get back to language.  You aren’t able to go forward on that pathway anymore, you can exit and go around, and get to where you need to go.

Additionally, music therapy can also help victims of traumatic brain injury who have lost  motor abilities.  Techniques which rely on the brain’s connections between rhythm and motor coordination use tempo to stimulate and regulate movement.

Giffords’ injury to the left side of her brain caused weakness on the right side of her body. Morrow played the guitar during her physical therapy sessions to help steady her steps.

Watching  Gabby and Mark: Courage and Hope really brought these concepts to life for me:

Behold the power of music!

Michele R. Berman, M.D. was Clinical Director of The Pediatric Center, a private practice on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. from 1988-2000, and was named Outstanding Washington Physician by Washingtonian Magazine in 1999. She was a medical internet pioneer having established one of the first medical practice websites in 1997. Dr. Berman also authored a monthly column for Washington Parent Magazine.

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