Sentara brings music and medicine together

Music has the power to modulate the heart rate, lower blood pressure dramatically, improve a person's speech and help recover language. It can serve to reduce anxiety and depression and is a tool in aiding people in walking better.

"Today we can prove these centuries-old intuitions. With a functional MRI we can look inside the brain to see how changes are happening," said Dr. Kamal Chémali, founding director of the Sentara Music and Medicine Center in his introduction to a free lecture-concert, "Music and the Brain," held in the lobby of Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital on Monday.

As part of Chémali's ongoing research into the connection between the physiological effects of music on listeners, the audience filled out questionnaires on seven health parameters before and after the classical concert. He typically finds a 75 to 80 percent improvement reported on the measures, including those related to pain, anxiety and stress levels, he said.

French guest pianist, Prisca Benoit, played a program that included Franz Schubert's "Klavierstücke D. 946, No. 2 in E. flat Major and the well-known "Clair de Lune" by Claude Debussy. "The artistry, the quality are very important to provoke the emotion," said Chémali, who has partnered with Benoit for five years in presenting lecture-concerts. "People talk to me afterwards and say their pain has disappeared, that they've never felt as good," she said, as Chémali translated.

At his lab, Chémali, a physician and also a trained pianist, focuses his research on the effects of music on the autonomous nervous system. "These are functions of the body that are not under our direct control — sweating, our heart rate and blood pressure," he said. "What I've found is that blood pressure drops phenomenally and quickly and remains low as they listen." Chémali examines the effects of different music styles, tempo, rhythm and organization, all of which factor in physiological responses. By bringing live performances to health-care settings under the "music medicine" umbrella, he aims to enhance patient satisfaction and the general sense of well-being.

The Music and Medicine Center also has a dedicated neurologic music therapist, Tracy Kiel Bowdish, whose focus is on using music for targeted medical goals. "We use rhythm to cue walking for Parkinson's disease and people after strokes," she said. It is also used for restoring language and improving speech.

Plans call for expanding the center's work throughout the Sentara Healthcare system.

Sentara Music and Medicine Center

The Norfolk-based center has multiple elements: music therapy to improve specific disorders; music medicine to bring live performances to patient care settings; performance medicine to treat problems specific to musicians, singers and dancers, including stage fright; research to investigate the physiological effects of different music on the body through Sentara Medical Group and partnering educational institutions; education and outreach.

For information, call the Sentara Neurosciences Institute at 877-310-8713.

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