Gabrielle Giffords: How Music Therapy Contributed to Her Recovery - Music and Medicine Week


Photo by Pete Souza, official White House photographer.

Written By: Ugonna Igweatu

Earlier this year, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords led a candlelight vigilon the mall at the University of Arizona upon the anniversary of the shooting that claimed 6 lives, wounded 13, and left her with a traumatic brain injury . The bullet that ripped through her brain at point-blank range, impaired her speech, walking, and the movement in her right arm. She recovered for 10 months at TIRR Memorial Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston before appearing on a special edition of ABC’s 20/20 with Diane Sawyer. The television special gave the public an inside look into her emotional and remarkable recovery. During the interview, Giffords sat beside her husband Mark Kelly, a retired Astronaut, speaking with a strong economy of words but barely making full sentences.

Giffords’ injury left her with Broca’s aphasia, a condition where the comprehension area of her brain (Wernicke’s area) is unharmed but the connection to the speech area (Broca’s area) is compromised. Frustratingly, congresswoman Giffords can understand everything that is happening and being said, yet cannot effectively communicate her thoughts. After the ABC special, much talk was made about the nature of her recovery. Her husband Mark Kelly videotaped her sessions with therapists. In the videotapes broadcast by ABC, we she Giffords struggling to utter her first word, and then further along in her recovery she is singing songs such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Girls Just Want to Have Funwith the manner of a healthy person despite still being severely speech impaired. In one exercise, she failed to name simple household objects, using “Spoon” for ‘Chair’, “Cheeseburger” for ‘Lamp’, and “Chicken” for numerous unrelated objects.

Her musical therapist, Meaghan Morrow, strummed a guitar, musicalizing everyday expressions to help Ms. Giffords to relearn language. This method of teaching is called melodic intonation therapy. It rests upon the fact that our brains are hardwired for music, especially in the right hemisphere where Giffords remains uninjured. Speech and comprehension are based in the left hemisphere. When an injury to the left hemisphere occurs, speech and comprehension may be affected. Still the brain is a flexible “plastic” structure and new neuron pathways may be createdto circumvent the injury, allowing the patient to make a substantial recovery.

With the help of melodic intonation therapy, brain injury patients can relearn to speak as well as walk using rhythm exercises. This method has been used in Parkinson’s patients to help them regain a symmetrical stride and a sense of balance. How melodic intonation therapy works in not completely understood. Scientists are unsure if it works because the patient is seeing a therapist frequently, or is motivated by a new therapy, or if it’s the therapy itself.

Either way, music is a strong stimulator of brain activity. It can be easier to sing than to talk because of the reflexive nature of tonal music. If ever you’ve forgotten the lyrics of a song only to remember them the instant the song plays on the radio, then your utilizing the well-worn pathways between neurons responsible for memorizing melody and intonation. For example, it is very difficult to forget the lyrics to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or the rhythm of each verse.

According to the American Music Therapy Association, the idea of music therapy began after World War I and II, when professional and amateur community musicians visited veteran’s centers around the country to play for veterans suffering physical and psychological wounds. When doctors noticed an improvement in the recovery of veterans following these musical sessions, the practice of music therapy began. Musicians then trained in colleges to study therapeutic techniques.

Today, wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering PTSD use music therapy to treat their symptoms. While there is no solid data to support the efficacy of music therapy, scientists believe the practice at the very least may do a slight of good with little to no harm. The usefulness of music therapy lies in its ability to motivate patients to endure a long and arduous course of therapy. It puts them in a good mood and thus makes recovery easier and faster.

On January 25th, Gabrielle Giffords resigned from Congress to focus on her recovery. Given the nature of brain injuries, she will likely improve steadily over the years, for many years to come.