THURSDAY, Sept. 29, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Singing helps some stroke patients suffering from non-fluent aphasia -- severe difficulties with speech -- re-learn how to speak, according to a new study.
Researchers in Germany pointed out, however, it's the rhythm and formulaic phrases associated with singing -- not the melodies -- that seem to make the difference.
The lyrics and phrases the patients were most familiar with had the biggest impact on the their articulation -- even when they were just spoken and not sung, the investigators found. They concluded that the findings could lead to the development of new therapies for speech disorders.
Speaking difficulties are common among people who suffer strokes that damage speech areas in the brain's left hemisphere. But the right side of the brain, which supports important functions of singing, often remains intact in these patients. Previous research suggested singing would stimulate areas in the right hemisphere that would take on the speech functions of the damaged areas.
To explore this idea further, the researchers asked 17 stroke patients with non-fluent aphasia to sing or recite several thousand syllables with rhythmic or arrhythmic accompaniment. The phrases selected were similar but very different in how familiar they were to the patients and how formulaic they were.
The study authors found that singing the phrases did not produce better results than speaking them rhythmically.
"The key element in our patients was, in fact, not the melody but the rhythm," Benjamin Stahl, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, said in an institute news release. "The positive effect was greatest in patients where deeper brain areas, known as the basal ganglia, were affected. These areas are known to be crucial for rhythmic processing."
The researchers pointed out that familiar song lyrics and formulaic phrases were the easiest for the patients to articulate. The reason for this, they suggested, is that these words may involve other brain mechanisms than spontaneous speech, including those involved in long-term memory.
More research is needed to determine how rhythmic and formulaic speech can be used in rehabilitative therapies, the study authors noted. "Even small gains in the ability to speak can mean a lot to aphasics, who sometimes have been unable to communicate easily for years," added Stahl.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about communicating with someone with aphasia.