BU Today

Arts & Entertainment + Science & Tech

Making music that heals

New music-motion technology may help stroke victims recover

Amir Lahav. Photos by Vernon Doucette

As Amir Lahav’s hand slices the air in a side-to-side gesture, a brightly colored digital image projected on the wall in front of him mirrors the action. A tiny Web camera attached to his computer translates his hand’s motion into musical feedback, filling his Sargent College laboratory with the sounds of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.

Certain movements at specified speeds, dictated by settings Lahav chooses, produce the music and keep it going. The music stops when his hand pauses or does not move in the prescribed pattern.

The computer program is called the Virtual Music Maker, and it’s much more than a great party trick. The technology, developed by the Music, Mind and Motion Lab at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences with the help of Margrit Betke, associate professor of computer science and director of undergraduate studies,  may help patients recover from neuromuscular disorders such as strokes by stimulating the brain in ways normally activated by physical movement.

“I strongly believe in active music therapy — the process where patients are physically involved in making music and listening to it, versus passive therapy, when they just hear it,” Lahav says. “There is something very special in playing music interactively. That something is that movements produce the sound. My idea is to take advantage of that experience and maybe we can apply it to therapy.”

Using the Virtual Music Maker, patients too disabled to play traditional musical instruments instead produce music with basic body motion. They can produce a note, a melody, or their favorite song by tapping a fingertip, wiggling a toe, or bobbing their heads.

The interactive music technology is being developed at the lab, which Lahav founded about two years ago after he came to BU from his native Israel to pursue a Ph.D. in rehabilitation sciences. The 34-year-old musician, athlete, and scientist has also developed software in collaboration with Adam Boulanger at MIT’s Media Lab, to teach nonmusicians to play basic piano music by ear.

A sign on Lahav’s office wall reads, “Trust Your Crazy Ideas.” He is working on scientific data to prove that his active music therapy works, he says, and people can physically benefit by making music and listening to music they know how to play.

Two years ago, he partnered with Gottfried Schlaug, a neurologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, conducted brain scans on healthy adults who are also nonmusicians listening to music Lahav had taught them to play. When the subjects listened to the music without moving any part of their bodies, their brains unconsciously simulated the same movments involved in playing the music.

“Something is changing in the brain,” Lahav says.

Lahav hopes that this mental stimulation will translate into physical benefits in patients. If stroke patients learn to play music, even just tapping a finger along with the Virtual Music Maker, they may regain motor function and maintain their recovery simply by listening to the music they know how to play. Even stationary patients listening to music they can play can benefit, Lahav says, because their brain is moving.

Once a wannabe rock star, Lahav had been combining music, mind, and motion well before he came to Sargent. He earned a bachelor’s degree in music and a master’s degree in exercise science in Israel. In his twenties, he served as a combat fitness officer in the Israeli army, played on a professional volleyball team, composed music for theater, worked as a personal trainer, and taught piano. He encouraged piano students to move their bodies to the music and to experience it. If students were having trouble with a rhythm, he would have them walk around the room to the beat.

Lahav took the idea a step further, creating a therapeutic workshop incorporating improvisational body movement with live music. He says that his students worked through both mental and physical stresses by moving their bodies in certain ways to music. “Music was just a tool to trigger them and motivate them to move in certain ways,” he says.

When he arrived at BU in 2003, no one was using music and science to facilitate physical rehabilitation. Lahav’s idea was to combine his passions into a research project.

Among the first to believe in Lahav’s project was Elliot Saltzman, an associate professor of physical therapy at Sargent, who has lent instrumental and scientific support to the Music, Mind and Motion Lab, serving as Lahav’s advisor.

Saltzman, an expert in complex timing and rhythms in speech and motor control, says Lahav’s idea closely paralleled projects he was working on. And he appreciated the nontraditional ideal: apply neuroscience with musical ideas for physical rehabilitation.

“It might not have worked, but if you never try, you never know,” Saltzman says. “I hope it will pay off in terms of turning into a viable rehabilitation technique — harness the power of music to tap into the reorganizing power of the brain to regain control of functional movements.”

Graduate computer science student Misha Gorman (CAS’04, GRS’07) is collaborating with Lahav, who is now focusing on finishing his Ph.D. and hoping to receive a grant to continue his post-doctoral research by using actual stroke patients as subjects. He says his goal is not to teach patients to play music, but to use music as a tool to make new neural pathways and facilitate physical recovery. His work will be successful, he says, if the therapy can provide even a 5 percent improvement in a patient’s recovery. For a stroke patient, 5 percent can make the difference between reaching or  not reaching to a cup of tea.

“All I’m doing is trying to combine the passion I have for music and try to make something valuable with this,” Lahav says. “In the future, I want to see more interactive musical devices used in clinical settings, and more brain imaging studies showing that such therapy is indeed effective.”
For more information on the Music, Mind and Motion Lab, visit www.mmmlab.com.