The scientist who seeks to unravel the mystery behind the healing power of music

Neurobiologist Eduardo Adrián Garza Villarreal, at the National Magnetic Resonance Imaging Laboratory of the UNAM Institute of Neurobiology, in Querétaro (Mexico).Courtesy

Heal, heal, frog tail, if it doesn’t heal today, it will heal tomorrow. For centuries, mankind has attributed healing, almost magical properties to music: from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Egypt to the songs that our fathers and mothers sang after we fell or scratched ourselves. Is the power that certain songs have to relieve pain real? Can it become an alternative to administer less medication to chronic patients or a formal treatment? And if it works, how does it do it and why? These are some of the questions that have been going around the head of the Mexican neurobiologist Eduardo Adrián Garza Villarreal during the last ten years and a riddle that science is still trying to decipher, at least since the 1960s. “Music is something that has always been an important part of my life,” says the researcher. “And here’s a pathway that we could hit that no one has seen,” he says.

Modern interest in the analgesic properties of music began, among other disciplines, in the field of dentists, who were especially concerned about the anxiety and pain experienced by their patients, says Garza Villarreal. The first stage of the investigations was dominated by classical music, largely driven by what was later called the Mozart effect. In the early 1990s, researcher Alfred Tomatis claimed that Wolfgang Amadeus’ pieces had the ability to influence behavior and the nervous system, and even cure cases of depression.

The psychologist Frances Rauscher published a study a couple of years later in the prestigious journal Nature, in which he suggested that listening to Mozart had positive effects on the spatial reasoning of 36 students. The results caught the attention of the media and politicians, but when the interest became massive, the message was simplified: “listening to Mozart makes you smarter”. Other articles dismissed the findings, saying there was no conclusive or replicable evidence, and labeled it a “neuromyth.” Meanwhile, Mozart became a bestseller 200 years after his death, music stores created exclusive sections on the composer and a couple of US governors gave his records to every woman who gave birth.

As far as scientific research is concerned, there is no evidence that Mozart has a particular effect on the perception of pain, but there are dozens of specialized articles that accredit the analgesic powers of music. “We realized that the type of music doesn’t really matter, but rather that you like it and that it is pleasant for you,” says Garza Villarreal.

In 2014, he and his team recruited 22 patients with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes pain throughout the body and fatigue, and assessed how long it took them to walk in a straight line, turn around and sit down, as well as their own perception of pain on a scale from 0 to 10 before and after listening to the music. The experiment led to a play list heterogeneous that included Los Tigres del Norte, Luis Miguel, José José, Vivaldi, Barry White, Pearl Jam, La Oreja de Van Gogh, Cat Stevens, Moby and Miguel Bosé, among others. If the researcher had been given a choice, he would have chosen something melodic metal or maybe a song from Tool or Everything but the girl. But most importantly, patients reported that perceived pain decreased and patients’ mobility increased.

“At this point, we know that it is a real effect, that music reduces pain,” says Garza Villarreal. The study of this effect involves several obstacles. “We all know what pain is, but it is more difficult to define it,” says the scientist. “It’s very subjective, very personal, but we know it exists,” he adds.

It may seem like a discussion worthy of a Philosophy colloquium, but it is necessary to overcome very specific obstacles: it involves physical sensations, emotional and cognitive states, internal and external stimuli. “The duality of pain, sensory and emotional, makes it a very complex thing to study, especially since there are no objective methods to measure it,” he writes in a 2016 article. There are multiple proposals for pain scales, but the answer The most effective is still the simplest: ask questions like how much does it hurt? or does it hurt more or less?

The other obstacles fall in the field of neurobiology and neuropsychiatry. Listening to music doesn’t just require your ears. The body has various functions to recognize sounds, but also various processes in the brain and brainstem that convert that sensory information into notions of pitch, location, and volume. Music also evokes memories, induces emotional states and releases endorphins, one of the substances produced by the body to relieve pain and transmit a feeling of well-being. Pain, from its perception to its modulation, is also highly complex. “There are at least 20 parts of our brain that process it,” says Garza Villarreal.

That said, Garza Villarreal lists that there are multiple hypotheses about how music can relieve pain. It is suggested that music can act as a distractor, as something that generates pleasure, that relaxes and releases dopamine or endogenous opioids (neurotransmitters that reduce pain), there is even talk of a placebo effect: it works because patients believe that it has a positive effect . In another experiment, a student in Garza Villarreal’s lab tried to block dopamine and neurotransmitter receptors, but the music still had an analgesic effect. “My theory is that it has to do with several factors,” he says. Solving math problems in the head has been applied to the same end, he says, but most patients simply prefer to listen to music.

The debate revolves around how and why this effect works. It is not yet known with certainty which parts of the brain are involved in the process. An investigation, published this month in the journal Science, analyzes this phenomenon in mice and believes he has responses from the neurological connection between pain and music. Scientists at Hefei University of Science and Technology in China put white noise — which is like the sound of radio static — into mice every day for 20 minutes and injected them with a substance that caused pain in their paws. . When the white noise was set five decibels louder than the background noise, the rodents were less responsive to stimuli, but much more sensitive when the volume was turned up higher. Most importantly, they found that the connection between the auditory cortex and different nuclei in the thalamus, a part of the brain involved in regulating sensory activity, inhibited pain through sound.

Garza Villarreal was one of those in charge of reviewing the study and considers that it may be a good approach to find out exactly where the effect of pain modulation takes place, one of the main unknowns. But it is early to claim victory. We must take into account the differences in how mice and humans process music and sounds, for example, and do more studies to reinforce that hypothesis.

The relationship between pain and music, however, is no longer the neurobiologist’s main line of research. After graduating as a surgeon from the Autonomous University of Nuevo León (UANL) and obtaining a doctorate in Neuroscience from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, he found that there was little interest in developing the subject in the country. He got a job at the UANL University Hospital to study strokes. “This type of studies has little prospect in Mexico, I don’t really know other people who are directly dedicated to this in the country,” says Garza Villarreal.

“When I arrived and told them that I wanted to dedicate myself to this, they looked at me strangely,” admits the researcher. “Some doctors were asked crappy or they saw it as black magic”, he comments between laughs. On one occasion, a senior scientist gave him some advice: separate what he really likes and what he feeds him. Garza Villarreal currently works as an associate researcher at the Neurobiology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Querétaro campus, studying addictions. She still collaborates with a research center in Denmark on projects on music and pain, and is about to publish a study on a woman in the United States with chronic pain who has gradually overcome her addiction to opioids through music. The opioid crisis claimed nearly 50,000 lives in that country in 2019, five times more than 20 years earlier, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Beyond Mozart or José José, Garza Villarreal aspires for this field of study to make a substantial difference in the quality of life of patients based on solid scientific evidence. “To me, that’s the point: Chronic pain is horrible and can bring many patients to the point of suicide,” he says. You could also lessen the side effects of certain medications in exchange for “a dose of music,” she adds. Publications on music and medicine are becoming more and more common, from postoperative treatments to the application for mental illnesses and music therapy, which is still seeking its place among the disciplines with systematic bases of knowledge.

“Music is paramount, it’s everywhere, especially in Latin America,” says Garza Villarreal. After tens of thousands of years of history, music has established itself as the most enigmatic of the arts and still holds scientific secrets linked to evolutionary and survival mechanisms, notions of pleasure, the ability to create and the development of the brain. An amateur guitarist and researcher hopes to help unravel this mystery.

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