The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. was the site June 2–3 of an extraordinary public gathering. Leading neurologists, researchers, and health professionals joined musicians, music therapists, and other artists for Sound Health: Music and the Mind.
The event, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), explored how music influences the mind, creativity, and health — even for people with serious neurological disorders.
The Sound Health project originated during at a dinner party 2 years ago, when NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., met acclaimed soprano and Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor at Large Renee Fleming, according to the Kennedy Center web site.
Laura Thomas, Ph.D., a neurologist and scientific review officer in the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT), assists Collins in the project. She first got involved in October 2016. "I feel so fortunate to be a part of this initiative," she said.
Neuroscience meets music therapy
Thomas helped plan an earlier collaboration with the Kennedy Center – Music and the Brain: Research across the Lifespan, a January 26‐27 scientific conference at NIH headquarters. Both 2017 programs grew out of a series of performances by the National Symphony Orchestra at the NIH Clinical Center.
That project brought Thomas in contact with scientists and artists engaged in novel scientific approaches to integrating music therapy with neuroscience. Researchers demonstrated the use of song to help stroke victims unable to speak normally. Other presentations showed how music helped relieve the symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer's.
"We learned a lot about the state of the science, in terms of the neuroscience of how music is processed," Thomas said. "That experience helped us plan the public event in June."
The June event included workshops on various topics, such as music in childhood development, music therapy in health recovery and quality of life, and various approaches to studying how music and creativity affect aging and the brain.
Alfonso Latoni, Ph.D., head of the DERT Scientific Review Branch, said Thomas' background in neurology, interest in music, and experience setting up peer review panels made her a natural to work on the project. It also informs her work at the institute.
"The neuroscience portfolio is at NIEHS is expanding, and her background in neuroscience fits right in," Latoni said. "She's been a great addition to our staff since she arrived last August."
Collins – scientist and musician
Collins' love of music is well-known around NIH. On the Kennedy Center web site, Fleming described how pleased she was to discover his interest in music when they met. "He was a terrific musician," Fleming said. "He not only plays the guitar and piano, but he writes his own music."
"I realized just how open she was to so many musical styles," Collins said, "but also how interested she was in this idea of how you figure out scientifically what's going on when someone is composing or singing, or playing an instrument."
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison)