‘I’m just very excited to try and find new ways to help them and to find new approaches to improving mental health,’ says study coordinator Shaun Fickling
A new, virtual study involving nurses, doctors and paramedics on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19 aims to find out whether music therapy can improve mental and emotional health.
The four-week study will see 20 health-care workers don brain-scanning equipment during remote music therapy sessions, giving researchers from Simon Fraser University and Surrey’s Health and Technology District insight into consequent changes in brain function.
For Taryn Stephenson, a director at the not-for-profit society Music Heals that sponsored the study, it represents a chance to uncover how music therapy can support mental health outcomes.
“We’re in a pandemic and you can see that people are leaning into musical experiences, even if it’s virtually,” Stephenson said, adding that she believes music can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. “Frankly, I believe that’s because music is a language of emotion. I think it touches on parts of our heart and our thoughts that maybe traditional medicine can’t.”
Music therapy looks different for every session and every client, given that not everyone has the ability or mobility to strum an instrument or play a key on a piano, Stephenson said. For some, the therapy may simply involve listening to music.
Ryan D’Arcy, a neuroscientist and a co-founder of the Health and Technology District, said there is a huge amount of existing science and research that shows the powerful effects music can have on moods, emotions, memories and cognition.
“Even individuals with severe Alzheimer’s disease, music can still pull them into conscious places. If you just think about it yourself, when you hear a song and it brings back a memory and the first time you heard that song and you can see or you can smell, you know that’s impacting and pulling in positive moods and emotions,” D’Arcy said.
What the researchers hope to do in the study is to translate that knowledge into “positive impacts for those who need that today, during the pandemic,” he said.
Shaun Fickling, a biomedical engineer, recent SFU PhD graduate and coordinator of the study, said it took some thinking to figure out how to carry out scientific research during a pandemic that had shut down laboratories.
The researchers had come up with the concept of a large study on the mental health benefits of music therapy a few years ago, but it would have involved magnetic resonance imaging. COVID-19 eliminated that idea, Fickling said.
As the pandemic wore on, the researchers realized the increasing mental health burden on health-care workers was not being addressed and they devised a study involving video conferencing and an easily equipped, commercially available, brain-scanning device called Muse.
The participants, who are being recruited now with help from the Fraser Health clinical research team from Surrey Memorial Hospital, will be delivered instruments and their brain scanners. After being shown how to equip the devices, they will participate in sessions with a certified music therapist. The study will allow the researchers to determine whether therapy improved the mental health and emotional state of the participants, Fickling said.
“I’m really looking forward to this,” he said. “I have friends who are doctors and paramedics, and have just seen, even anecdotally, how stressful their jobs were, even before COVID, and how much more difficult the pandemic has made life for them and the associated mental health challenges with that. From a personal level, I’m just very excited to try and find new ways to help them and to find new approaches to improving mental health.”
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