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Is rhythm the secret to recovering from a brain injury?

Before he was a professor of neuroscience at Ohio State, Yune Lee played guitar and sang in a band. 

Then, as bands do, it broke up. So Lee went to work as a music director, scoring commercials, harmonizing the pictures with music. The result was bliss.

“It gave me goosebumps,” Lee recalls.

Lee wanted to know what gave him those chills. So he returned to school for his PhD and dove deep into auditory neuroscience. As his research progressed, Lee became fascinated by the value of music-based rehabilitation for those who had suffered brain injuries. 

His initial studies, like the vast amount of research in this area, focused on melody, specifically pitch variation, for speech and cognition therapy.   

However, about eight years ago, studies began to trickle out indicating rhythm might play a larger role than previously believed. 

A few studies in particular caught Lee’s attention. One stated rhythm and not singing may hold the key to aphasia recovery — aphasia is a condition in which a person suffers speech and cognition difficulties after a brain injury. Another study showed children who struggled with rhythm discrimination, but not tone, also had grammar problems. 

“At this point I’m convinced something is going on here and I’m going to find out what,” Lee said. 

People playing drums with their hands as a form of therapy.
Could rhythm be the key to regaining speech after a brain injury?

Discovering rhythm’s role

As the director of the Speech, Language and Music Lab (SLAM Lab) at Ohio State, Lee creates novel approaches to study rhythm’s role in recovery. His research includes children dealing with grammar processing — in the form of stuttering or dyslexia — aphasia and Parkinson’s disease

The consistent link is that those suffering speech and cognition difficulties improve when rhythm is introduced to their therapy. 

In his aphasia research, his team developed an app called TheraBeat that has shown promising results in aphasia sufferers. The app is in the early stages of commercial development by FlintRehab.

Though his study groups have been small and are in the early stages, the pilot results consistently show participant improvement when rhythm is introduced. 

“You have to string all the notes of music together to appreciate it, and it’s the same for linguistic events,” Lee said. “Rhythm in music and grammar, and syntax in language are intertwined because they all rely on temporal processing (our ability to sequence words or notes in a given time). Temporal processing is mediated by the dopaminergic system.”

Parkinson’s sufferers, for instance, lack dopamine, leading to depression along with slurred speech and slowed movement. The dopaminergic system is largely controlled by the basal ganglia, cells in the middle of the brain that also control speech, movement and posture. 

Damage to the basal ganglia leads to speech, cognition and movement impairment. Lee said brain scans reveal rhythm stimulates key areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia.

Portrait of SLAM Lab director Yune Lee.
“At this point I’m convinced something is going on here — and I’m going to find out what,” said SLAM Lab Director Yune Lee, who is exploring the ties between rhythm and recovery from brain injuries.

“When you look at brain activity, you see all the language networks, including the basal ganglia strand in the middle of the brain — it’s on fire,” Lee said. “That is the centerpiece, where rhythm and syntactic decision making take place, that’s connecting the process between music and language.”

Though his studies show promise, Lee admits there are a lot of skeptics. He also said music-based therapy research suffers from a lack of clinical rigor. 

“Clinical trials of these designs are challenging and time consuming, but it pays off,” Lee said. “This is my mission, to find scientific truth and also benefit society, help people who suffer from disease. It’s fulfilling and heartwarming.”