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Participants and researchers in the Drum Dance Rehabilitation for Parkinson’s Disease study participate in a drum circle exercise.

Jo McCulty

Healing with a beat

A researcher asks whether drumming and dance can help alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The results will move you.

The door closes. The music begins. “Sunshine Day” by Osibisa plays from speakers, igniting a chorus of drumming from a circle of seven in the middle of the room, each person tapping on hand drums in rhythm to the song.

The song stops but the drumming doesn’t. Rhythms rise and fall, change directions and echo off cinder block walls in a first-floor room at Wexner Medical Center’s Martha Morehouse Medical Plaza.

“The more I do this the more I realize why older cultures used drumming as a form of medicine,” says Dave Butler, who was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease five years ago. “It brings the body back into rhythm.”

Butler spent part of his winter as a participant in the second round of clinical trials for an Ohio State research project exploring whether rhythmic drumming and dance exercises can have therapeutic benefits for people with Parkinson’s.

Andrew Ina

The project — Drum Dance Rehabilitation for Parkinson’s Disease — is a collaboration between principal investigator Yune Lee, an assistant professor of speech and hearing and director of the Speech, Language and Music Lab (SLAM Lab), and co-investigator Eugenia Costa-Giomi ’91 PhD, a professor in the School of Music.

“Music as mood regulation has been used for millennia,” Costa-Giomi says. “We’re exploring that in a more sophisticated way.”

Parkinson’s disease saps dopamine — the neurotransmitter that helps regulate movement, attention, learning and emotion — from the brain, leading to symptoms including depression, difficulty with speech and movement, and tremors. Lee hypothesizes rhythmic activities reinforce our dopaminergic systems and could complement other Parkinson’s treatments, such as exercise rehabilitation, medication and surgery.

“Art-based rehabilitation lacks scientific evidence,” says Lee, whose background includes a doctorate in neuroscience and a career as a music studio director. “That is my mission, to find scientific truth but also benefit society. It’s fulfilling and heartwarming.”

Participants attend classes for three weeks and complete neural and behavioral testing to measure changes in cognitive functions.

“Music as mood regulation has been used for millennia. We’re exploring that in a more sophisticated way.” Professor Eugenia Costa-Giomi ’91 PhD

Clinical trials began in fall 2018 and will continue until enough data is collected. The hope is that data will reveal therapeutic benefits, which could garner national funding and develop into a program in Columbus and made available throughout the country.

Kevie Bovaird ’18, a SLAM Lab research assistant, and Trevor Marcho, a doctoral music education student under Costa-Giomi, designed the project and instruct the classes.

Bovaird and Marcho piloted the study with help from Caroline Conway ’18, a former SLAM Lab researcher with a background in dance, and David Hesse, a friend of Costa-Giomi’s who has Parkinson’s and agreed to help the team develop the curriculum. The study became the basis of a curriculum focused on activities that targeted multi-tasking, coordination, creativity, speaking and language.

Behavioral tests also were developed to measure language ability, music ability, auditory working memory and visual working memory before and after the classes. Participants’ brain activity was monitored through neuroimaging.

Eric Pindell, a study subject who participated in the second round of trials, says the classes have had an effect.

“I’ve started humming a tune in my mind when I walk,” Pindell says. “I wasn’t doing that before the classes, but it seems to help me walk more easily and move with purpose.”

Marcho says other subjects have reported similarly positive reactions. “Every day, somebody would have a lightbulb moment,” Marcho says. “The disease is so degenerative, it wears them away. For them to actually gain a skill, whether it lessens the symptoms or just makes them feel better about life, is valuable.”

Can you help? 

Researchers have struggled to find participants for the DDR for Parkinson’s Disease study. If you have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, or know someone who might be interested in participating, email or call 614-247-8320.

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