Patients with Parkinson?s sing a new song

14 December 2010

Singing lessons as a form of treatment for people with Parkinson's disease? For speech language-pathologist and vocalist Merrill Tanner, it's always made sense.

Currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Tanner is studying how singing can improve function and communication for patients with PD-and she's already seeing some positive results.

PD is typically a disease of the elderly, striking in the late 50s. The degenerative disorder hinders the body's ability to produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the body's message system. As the disease progresses, the brain is less and less able to tell body parts what to do.

In addition to symptoms such as tremor, slow movement and parkinsonian gait, patients will eventually lose the ability to speak and swallow-that's where Tanner's study comes in.

"Singing is more vigorous than speech, though it's the same mechanism," Tanner explains. "It's an energetic way to improve loudness, pitch variability, pitch range, breath support and more."

While practicing as a speech-language pathologist in at the Adult Speech Language Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Tanner incorporated singing into her treatment for patients with PD. She began work at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in 2001 with patients who had PD, Alzheimer's or suffered a stroke. She started a weekly singing group for geriatric inpatients.

"Some people would question the use of singing in speech therapy. They'd ask me if I knew for sure that it was effective," says Tanner.

So Tanner decided to do the research herself. She approached a vocal teacher and asked him to conduct his usual half-hour singing lessons three times a week with a cohort of seven PD patients.

"It was very beneficial for the patients and they loved it," she smiles. "They'd go home and practice on their own time."

Tanner then made the decision to pursue a PhD in Rehabilitation Science at the U of A's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, taking the study further and hosting her own group singing program for patients with PD.

"So far, I've seen some positive results; there's something about singing together-the unison effect-when there's more than one person, the words seem to flow better because you're together," she explains.

The singing lessons accommodate any level of musical ability, whether the PD patient is just a beginner or a high level musician.
"I also see the support group phenomenon happening. The people in the group come together and see others who are in the same situation. There is a bond and they support one another."

Tanner's research will continue in the new year as she hopes to complete her PhD in late 2011.

This story was covered in the November issue of Alberta Views.

About the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
As the only free standing faculty of rehabilitation in Canada, the University of Alberta Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine balances its activities among learning, discovery and citizenship (including clinical practice). A research leader in musculoskeletal health, spinal cord injuries and common spinal disorders (back pain), the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine aims to improve the quality of life of citizens in our community. The three departments, Occupational Therapy (OT), Physical Therapy (PT) and Speech Pathology and Audiology (SPA) offer professional entry programs. The Faculty offers thesis-based MSc and PhD programs in Rehabilitation Science, attracting students from a variety of disciplines including OT, PT, SLP, psychology, physical education, medicine and engineering.