Rehabilitation through singing

Sensors are applied to participants’ throats for data collection while they talk and eat. Pictured here is Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, Elizabeth Stegemoller, attaching the sensors to Kathy Gundlach’s throat.

Image courtesy of Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University.

Sensors are applied to participants’ throats for data collection while they talk and eat. Pictured here is Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, Elizabeth Stegemoller, attaching the sensors to Kathy Gundlach’s throat.

Ashlyn Ware

Singing along to a feel-good classic, screaming out the lyrics of a breakup ballad or fist-pumping to a rager- it’s all a therapeutic release and reckoning with emotions, and scientists are researching just how beneficial singing is.

“Right now, we are looking at the effects of singing for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Associate Professor of Kinesiology and Director of the Interdepartmental Graduate Neuroscience Program, Elizabeth Stegemoller, said. “In particular, we’re looking at how singing can help their voice, swallowing and respiratory control. [We’re] also looking at how singing can affect brain activity and also markers of stress and inflammation.”

Research began with eight weeks of consistent singing practice while researchers collected quantitative data, such as cortisol levels in the body after singing and quantitative data, such as mood improvements. Currently, the participants are resting for eight weeks before data collection begins again.

Before the semester started, the team was “doing about two data collections a day, and those take anywhere from two to three hours,” Stegemoller said. “About spring break-ish, we’ll start round two of data collection, so it’s the same people, but they’ll come back, and we’ll do the same data collections. Then we’ll start the actual singing intervention.”

Singing intervention is a group-based singing therapy at Iowa State that helps people cope with Parkinson’s disease symptoms, such as the inability to swallow. Aside from the singing intervention, there are also boxing and yoga interventions.

“This particular project is kind of a continuation of studies that we’ve done in the past,” Stegemoller said.

In 2013, Stegemoller conducted her first Parkinson’s singing research study, which grew into a second study, and now a third.

“Our first study looked at singing over eight weeks,” Stegemoller said. “Our second study looked only at one hour of singing. So, for this study, we’re looking at all of our outcome measures we have looked at in the past, but looking [at a longer singing period of] about 16 weeks to see how those are changed. In our previous studies, we didn’t have a control period where participants weren’t singing, and then they start singing, so we’ve added that in.”

Findings from the previous two studies indicated where more research was to be done and how Stegemoller could improve the experiment. The responses Stegemoller got from interacting with participants in the second study are playing a major role in the current research.

“We have the luxury of being able to talk to our participants and asking them what they think about the intervention and the study itself,” Stegemoller said. “We were able to do a qualitative study and found out from the participants that they felt less stressed, like a sense of comradery. That’s what led us to the second study, to continue to look at the underlying physiology, which would be those markers of stress and bonding and inflammation. When we completed that study, we wanted to look at a longer period of time because some of these things aren’t going to change immediately.”

While singing groups for people with Parkinson’s are not new, the research accompanying it is. 

“When we first started, there were only a handful of research articles on singing and Parkinson’s disease, maybe about 4 or 5, and they had mixed results,” Stegemoller said.

The importance of this research is to show that singing interventions are a valid and beneficial form of coping with Parkinson’s disease.

“The first step is really showing that this intervention works, and that’s where we are with it,” Stegemoller said. “It is something that’ll work. It is something that helps improve the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease. It helps them live a happy, fuller life even after their diagnosis.”

Stegemoller thinks that with a holistic approach to symptom management, the singing intervention might even reduce reliance on medication.

“I would never say we want to replace medication because we know that medication can work. But, medication doesn’t treat all the symptoms,” Stegemoller said. “…Eventually, maybe we get to instead of taking the medication as soon as you’re diagnosed, let’s get a holistic regime where we include exercise, include music and some of these other holistic measures that maybe could help delay progression and the start of medication.”

Reducing dependency on medication also has economic benefits as well. If someone doesn’t need as much medication or no medication at all, they would be saving money.

Stegemoller’s research goes beyond the scientific reasoning behind Parkinson’s symptoms. Her research aims to collect and examine hard data about the difficult symptoms that affect all aspects of life.

“The whole social engagement aspect that can become difficult for anyone with a disability or illness or sickness at any time, those are components we often forget but are the most important for keeping people motivated to keep taking their medication, to keep moving, to keep doing the things that they need to do to live a healthy life,” Stegemoller said.

Stegemoller is fully engulfed in research responsibilities as round two of data collection approaches. While she doesn’t want to bias herself or others in the data analysis phase, Stegemoller already has a general idea of where the research will be headed next.

“Once we can show that it works, hopefully, we can move into more of those randomized trials with the ultimate goal of hoping that every person with Parkinson’s disease in the future can, if they want, have access to join a singing group.”

Stegemoller also mentioned expanding the pool of participants to include people from outside of Iowa. While this research is impactful locally, Stegemoller wants the findings accessible on a larger scale.

“For me, the whole reason that I do this is because I’m really interested in understanding the why. Why does music work in the brain? Why does it work for people with Parkinson’s disease? And trying to understand that will help continue to support its use in our medical field. That’s the biggest take-home reason for me.”

For a video overview of this research, visit Iowa State’s News Service webpage here. For more information about all of Stegemoller’s research, visit her selected works page here.