Full text of Dr. Lee Bartel’s talk titled “Music Medicine: Sound At A Cellular Level” at TEDxCollingwood conference.
Dr. Lee Bartel – Sound expert and researcher
Many years ago, I grew up on a honey farm in western Canada. And so every summer and fall, I’d be in the honey house extracting honey from the honeycomb. A very sweet job.
And without fail, a couple of drops of honey would land on one of the belts. So one of the machines and start to go squeak, squeak, squeak to drive me nuts.
And just as inevitably a cricket would walk into the honey house and would go chirp, chirp, and chirp.
What always amazed me was that it didn’t take very long before what started as a sort of a random chirp would synchronize with the squeak on the belt.
Why this was happening was a question that lingered in my head for very many years, until I discovered the principle of entrainment in physics; how one rhythmic vibrating object will synchronize with another.
And so I used that idea and started creating music to affect your brainwaves. Music like this pleasant music. But it had a very specific rhythmic structure that would allow me to help you go to sleep, help you relax, even help you focus.
Many years after I started doing this, I discovered that I could just use a single pitch like this… 40 Hertz, remember this sound very low, it’s like low E in the piano.
But with this, I found I could help people reduce their pain. Even reduce Alzheimer’s symptoms.
These three sounds, the cricket, the music and the low frequency pitch are all potentially music medicine. Each of these sounds features a rhythmic structure that allows it to impact cells in your body.
In fact, my research recently has shown that stimulating cells with sound of this sort can reduce the risk and impact of some common health problems. This is where you’re supposed to say, wait, what?
So there are two parts to this that I need to unpack for you so you can understand what I’m getting at.
The first is how sound impact cells in the body. Sound which includes music but not all sound is music, but all music is sound, is in essence vibration, molecular compressions in the air that come to your ear or to your skin if you feel it as vibration as you may have done with a 40 hertz.
The ear has hair cells in the cochlea that translate this vibration into electric signals so that the auditory nerve carries this to the brain. So when you encounter a click, like this, what’s happening is that compressions of air, air molecules are coming to your ear and your ear is translating that into an electric impulse and sending it to your brain, something like this.
So it goes up the nerve and into the neuron. Except it’s not one neuron. It’s probably a thousands or millions of neurons that are responding right to that click. Just a bit of information here. When we have one click coming to our ear, we call it one Hertz, it’s a measure per how many per second. When it’s five per second, we call it five hertz. When it’s 40, we call it 40 hertz.
And the brain wave is measured in the same way as Hertz. So 40 per second or 40 hertz sound will be called Gamma because it’s in the category of gamma brainwaves.
The other part of my assertion is that brain waves are important to issues of health. So let’s look at that for a minute.
What we know about the brain is that although there are millions of neurons, they’re not just randomly firing unconnected. What we know is that neurons that fire together, wire together. And so we have circuits within our brain.
So, for example, a motor circuit is multiple parts of the brain that need to connect so that you can initiate a movement; so you can control that movement and stop that movement.
The memory circuit again connects multiple parts of the brain. So that what you’re experiencing now, you may actually be able to remember tomorrow as the present experience perception turns into short term memory and into long term memory.
What else we know about the brain is that healthy circuits that are functioning for you now require steady brainwaves. In other words, if one part of the brain is going like this and the other part occasionally like that, they’re not going to connect, the circuit will not work.
And what we know is that the frequency at which neurons like to connect and respond most easily is around 40 hertz. There seems to be a pattern developing here. When circuits do not function correctly, bad things happen.
For example, when the parts of the brain that are supposed to initiate and control movement do not connect, you may not be able to initiate a movement as in dyskinesia or you may not be able to stop as in a tremor. So you may have Parkinson’s.
When parts that are supposed to give you a long term memory do not connect, you may have dementia or Alzheimer’s.
So let me talk about a case of Alzheimer’s that we treated. She’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about six months before she came to our experimental vibro acoustic low frequency 40 hertz treatment. And so we gave her a prescription of 30 minutes of 40 hertz sound stimulation three times a week for four weeks.
And we used this chair, the next wave chair that had speakers built into its six speakers so that that low frequency 40 hertz sound you heard you would actually feel as vibration.
At the end of the 12 weeks, we realized that her test score had gone up. She was giving us an indication that she could remember her grandchildren’s names more easily. She seemed more cognitively engaged and clearer.
And so the question is: What is that about 40 hertz stimulation as vibrations sound that might make this happen? Why would this happen in the case of Alzheimer’s?
So one of the things we know about Alzheimer’s is that as a person develops this, there seem to be fewer neurons firing together at the 40 hertz level. So there’s less power in 40 hertz. That means the circuits are decaying.
We also know, of course, that sound stimulation increases 40 hertz firing and so we can increase their number of neurons firing at 40 hertz and hopefully restore those circuits. The cricket principle.
So let me tell you about a study we did next then, which is we took 18 patients. This was just a short little study to see whether we could have some effect. And we spread these across mild to severe. We used watching a DVD as a control, and the prescription was 30 minutes of sound stimulation in this chair at 40 hertz twice a week for only three weeks. So a total of three hours of stimulation.
And the results surprised us.
What we saw was not just an effect at every session, which is what we thought might happen. But this was accumulating session to sessions over three weeks across the sample. We had an increase of 13% in the test score.
We were getting results from patients such as people saying in the third week, oh I remember doing this before. And generally greater engagement with the world around them and in conversation.
So it’s a very strong evidence that stimulation might, in fact, improve. Notice the DVD had a negative effect. They just got bored and got worse watching the DVD.
So one of the questions that came out of that study is how long does this last? Like, can we have this effect for three weeks and then it goes away. What if a person continued this for a while?