Recovering from stroke — through music

In the early 2000s, as part of the OHSU Stroke Center, I saw disabled stroke patients make remarkable progress in their recoveries — simply by exerting a large amount of extra effort and determination in their rehab exercises.

The patients were part of a program led by an innovative OHSU physical therapist named Andrea Serdar. The program was within what is now known as the OHSU Outpatient Neurological Rehabilitation Department within the OHSU Brain Institute.

I loved to talk to Andrea about what might encourage more patients to put this kind of serious effort into their rehab.

And I thought about this later, when — of all things — I started to play ukulele and sing with friends on a weekly basis. Through trial and error, I started to learn what makes a recreational music group super successful, rewarding and long-lived. And it was not long before Andrea and I colluded to start a music group of our own — for stroke survivors.

We started the group in October 2011. And it did not take long to gain a regular group of about eight stroke survivors, and an amazing blues guitarist named Trace Wiren. The group, called Backstrokes, was just featured in a KOIN TV story.

About a year in, we realized that the speech of some of our members with expressive aphasia — the significantly decreased ability to use language, often because of a stroke — had noticeably improved, both in clarity of words and also the increased ability to get the words out. More recently, I have noticed that members with cognitive disabilities have noticeably improved in their ability to answer a question without wandering into another subject. When asked, members report an increased sense of independence, as well as the improvement with speech.

Because a large portion of the brain is used to experience music, scientists think that music is able to bypass the damaged area of the brain, and form new neural pathways.

On occasion, the beauty of our singing harmonies catches me by surprise. My favorite thing, by far, is when we finish a song, and we look around and we all know that we totally nailed it!

I look forward to the coming year, as we are determined to figure out how to find the financial and other support to reach more and more stroke survivors. We hope to accomplish this by taking our music group to stroke support groups and medical center inpatient units and skilled nursing facilities. Although people initially come to our group because they need help with their own recovery, it does not take long at all before they are able to help others in this way. This is an amazing transformation to witness, and is clearly empowering for the individuals in the group.

Anne Tillinghast
Administrative Coordinator, OHSU Stroke Center
OHSU Brain Institute