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REPORT | A New Study Asks: Could Prescribing Music Make Medications Work Better?

By Anya Wassenberg on June 22, 2023

Base image by Elisa Riva (CC0C/Pixabay)
Base image by Elisa Riva (CC0C/Pixabay)

When your doctor prescribes a medication as treatment, should they also be prescribing a piece of music to listen to as you take it? Researchers at the University of Alberta are involved in a scientific study that may just have that effect.

Music affects the body as well as the mind, as we know from previous research, and music’s therapeutic effects, such as relaxation and stress management, are already used in practice. Music and drug therapy may be the next step.

How Could Music Affect The Way Prescriptions Work?

Exposure to music, whether that involves listening, playing, or learning to play, affects the body physically in many ways. There is a growing body of recent research that is delving into the mechanisms at play.

An often cited pilot study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013 was one of the first to attempt to document the relationship between listening to music and steroid hormones.

The seminal study documented the effects of listening to specific types of music on testosterone, estradiol, and cortisol. They found listening to any type of music significantly decreased cortisol levels, for example, (the so-called stress hormone), and variations in how testosterone levels differed between male and female test subjects.

Previous studies have demonstrated that music adds to what is called brain plasticity or neuroplasticity, which is essentially the way the brain changes in response to its environment. Brain plasticity is conducive to learning and memory. The 2013 study went on to make another connection, the one between plasticity and musical ability itself.

The reactions to hormone levels were more pronounced in test subjects who had demonstrated musical ability, possibly the result of increased neuroplasticity.

Previous research has also revealed that exposure to music can also affect neurotransmitters, the body’s chemical messengers, and cytokines, a type of protein that play a key role in regulating the cells of the immune system, as well as blood cells.

With the accumulated data, it’s not such a stretch to consider how music would affect the way the body absorbs various medications.

The Study

It’s an avenue, though, that few have previously considered for study. Tony Kiang, BScPharm, ACPR, RPh, PhD, and Assistant Professor, Faculty of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences, is leading the project.

“It was very interesting that few had made the connections between music and drug metabolism effects,” he comments in a UofA release.

The study is operating with the hypothesis that specific types of music will affect those proteins and enzymes responsible for metabolizing drugs in the body. Kiang and the research team will test that theory with music of different tempos, rhythms, and genres, including original music composed to isolate specific elements for study.

For the human test subjects, it will be a fairly simple process: listen to music, have a blood test.

“There are certain endogenous markers in the blood which represent specific metabolism pathways,” explains Kiang. “We can use those to measure differences in metabolism for the patient being exposed to the music.”

They will look to hone their findings in order to make specific recommendations that can be customized for each individual’s situation.

“For example, classical music might be beneficial for surgical patients overall, but some patients may respond better to one composer versus another,” Kiang adds.

While prescription drug use is common, the ways and mechanisms in which those drugs affect the body are not fully understood. The study has the potential to advance that field of knowledge, and produce more effective therapies.

So many people already credit music with saving their lives; the study may point the way to yet another way it can help us heal.


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