Could music be used as therapy for epilepsy?

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The Ancient Greeks named the illness but thousands of years later doctors are still looking for key answers about causes and treatments for epilepsy.

Drug therapies have been developed for the condition, which affects about one in 200 people, yet around 30 per cent of sufferers face debilitating seizures and other side effects due to a continued lack of control of their illness.

Now specialists in the region are hoping to step up the search for new approaches to tackle symptoms through the £2 million Yorkshire Brain Research Centre appeal - with one potential avenue looking at the role of music.

Limited studies have already been carried out to examine if music could help control symptoms. One team found three quarters of patients saw a dramatic fall of 50 per cent in their seizures after they were played Mozart’s piano duet K448. The duet has been the focus of debate after it was linked in another study to improved working memory, although how remains a mystery.

Consultant neurologist Melissa Maguire, based at Leeds General Infirmary, said it had been speculated that the rhythmic structure of the duet, with its repeating melody, could have anticonvulsant properties in epilepsy leading to better seizure control by somehow “retuning” brainwaves.

But studies had also shown music could trigger seizures, although cases are rare.

More work was required to understand the basic science behind the interaction between music and epilepsy to help researchers develop new non-drug strategies and to screen for epilepsy triggered by music.

It remained unclear if a specific piece of music, genre, composer or quality of sound had an impact on the illness.

“It’s an interesting area. We don’t know what aspect of music is seizure triggering or what it is about Mozart that seems to make people less likely to have seizures,” she said.

Around 70 per cent of patients with epilepsy achieve a remission in seizures following drug therapy but a third may require multiple trials of treatment or even brain surgery although only around five per cent will be suitable for operations. Those whose condition is difficult to treat often face anxiety, depression and drug side-effects as a result of taking multiple treatments.

Existing tests for epilepsy by monitoring electrical patterns in the brain use flashing lights but not sound.

Dr Maguire said the area was one in which she would like to carry out research but it would need support from experts in other fields among them musicologists. Tests would require MRI imaging of blood flow to the brain while patients were listening to music.

The work could also lead to improved evaluation of patients facing brain surgery to better target parts of the brain which did not affect their ability to process music.

Music has been used in other fields in medicine as therapy for people with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and stroke. Patients can choose to have music playing during operations and some surgeons like to operate to music. People undergoing first aid “kiss of life” training use the Bee Gees hit Stayin’ Alive to time compressions.

The Yorkshire Brain Research Centre appeal aims to find new ways of treating neurological illnesses, among them dementia, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.