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Researchers See Potential of Music to Treat Epilepsy

Neurologists say their discovery of a “Mozart effect” could lead to customized music treatments for people plagued by epileptic seizures.

(CN) -- For the 50 million people worldwide who suffer from epilepsy, relief from seizures may be much simpler than medications or surgery. New research in music therapy found listening to Mozart reduced electrical brain waves linked to epilepsy.

Born in Salzburg, in what is now Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy on the violin and piano and developed into a master composer, producing 600 scores before he died in 1791 at age 35.

The universal appeal of his works and the fact they are in the public domain, free to use without copyright concerns, means anyone on the planet with a TV has likely heard some of them. They are often used in commercials, most frequently by luxury car companies.

The composer has even influenced the field of psychology. A theory that playing classical music for toddlers enhances their mental development is known as the “Mozart effect.”

Since the 1990s, epilepsy researchers have studied how their patients respond to Mozart’s music, but they had trouble producing quality, replicable research to dispel the doubts of skeptics.

 A team from the Epilepsy Centre at St. Anne’s University and the Central European Institute of Technology--Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, says they have discovered an unmistakable Mozart effect with a new approach.

They placed electrodes in the brains of epilepsy patients prior to surgery and played them Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos K448,” and “Symphony No. 94” by Mozart’s contemporary Joseph Haydn.

They were surprised to find Mozart’s piece led to a 32% decrease in epileptiform discharges, bursts of electricity in brain cells that can trigger seizures, while Haydn’s caused a 45% increase.

“We observed that K448 has a more harmonic spectrum and its spectral content does not change quickly; this probably has a positive effect on epileptic patients. In addition, it is less rough, and the roughness does not change much over time,” said Masaryk University neurology professor Ivan Rektor, who led the study.

The team will present their findings on Saturday at the 7th Congress of the European Academy of Neurology in Vienna.

Earlier research posited the effect came from Mozart’s music making people happy, initiating the release of dopamine, a compound produced by the brain that facilitates communication between neurons and is released when one is expecting, or enjoying, a reward.

But Rektor and his colleagues found the reduction of seizure-inducing electrical waves was more pronounced in part of the brain that translates acoustic signals, rather than the region connected to emotional responses to music.

"The effects of listening to music on epilepsy cannot be explained by the effect of dopamine released by the reward system," Rektor said in a statement. "Our patients were not music connoisseurs and said they were emotionally indifferent to the two pieces of music. There was, therefore, no reason to believe that K448 evoked more pleasure than No. 94."

The researchers believe their findings could lead to customized music therapies for people plagued by epileptic seizures.

The therapy could be most valuable in poor countries, where the World Health Organization says 75% of people living with epilepsy do not get the treatment they need, and are loath to seek it out due to the stigma of the disorder.

Two hundred and thirty years after his death, Mozart’s influence lives on. And it’s safe to say if they were alive today this study’s results would not stir any resentment in Haydn.

Haydn was 23 years older than Mozart. Historians say they met in 1784 in Vienna and hit it off, sometimes playing together for fun in string quartets.

Though Haydn was a mentor to Mozart, he recognized the younger man’s genius and did not put himself in the same class.

"I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition,” he told Mozart’s father in 1785.

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