Therapeutic Use of Brain Waves Employs Music
Strains of Relaxation
By Kim Lamb Gregory
Sunday, January 8, 2008
Isela Vasquez asks a lot of herself; working alongside autistic children demands even more from the 32-year-old Sylmar woman, who puts in about 60 hours a week.
"It's fulfilling. I love it, but it's draining," she said. "There is a level of physicality involved with the job. I have to chase after kids sometimes, and just the frustration level, the tolerance level "
This week, she added a graduate school curriculum in occupational therapy.
Sleep was the first casualty of her busy schedule. As her head hit the pillow each night, her thoughts continued to ricochet, causing insomnia at least three nights a week. When she did fall asleep, she slept fitfully, waking up exhausted.
"It's just so extremely hard just to relax these days," she said. "You've got to it seems like you have to, like, plug out. And I just can't do that."
Vasquez tried sleep aids, and they worked, but she wanted to address the underlying chronic anxiety causing her insomnia.
"I just think sleep aids, that's kind of a Band-Aid," she said. "I know that there were other things contributing to my stress and anxiety."
Then, her mom spotted a newspaper ad for something called "brain music therapy." Vasquez had never heard of it but was willing to give it a try.
About six months ago, she made an appointment to see Beverly Hills psychologist Orli Peter, the first of two in the state to offer brain music therapy; the other is in Northern California.
Vasquez was in for a curious experience involving a rubber cap, electrodes and her own unique brain-wave pattern.
After taking Vasquez's psychological history, Peter instructed her to lean back in the armchair where she was seated in Peter's office and to relax. Peter then squeezed a bit of conductive gel out of a tube and applied it to various spots on Vasquez's head.
"Just begin relaxing. Just close your eyes, which is the quickest way to get into the alpha state," Peter said, referring to the point when people are relaxed but awake.
Peter then applied flat, adhesive discs to the spots where she had rubbed gel on Vasquez's skull, completing the ritual by fitting a rubber cap over Vasquez's head.
A tangle of electrode wires snaked out from the cap and fed into a breadbox-size machine designed to read Vasquez's brain waves. The machine began recording brain signals, then transmitted the wave pattern into Peter's laptop computer.
After repeating some soothing phrases designed to encourage a relaxed state for Vasquez, Peter sat down quietly at the computer and the two sat in silence for the next 15 minutes. Vasquez relaxed in the chair, eyes closed, while Peter watched her brain waves etch a spiky path across the computer screen.
Creating mental music
"We took her EEG (electroencephalogram), which is the electrical output from your brain," Peter explained later. "Your brain gives off different electrical currents based on all different kinds of things. If you think differently, if you feel differently or if you're stressed, there will be a different brain output."
Peter's job is to create two CDs for her clients. One is designed to energize; the other is designed to relax.
Creating the relaxation music requires isolating the waves Vasquez's brain gives off when relaxed.
"It's just like an orchestra playing its instruments," Peter said. "What we're doing is looking at her relaxing brain waves. It doesn't matter what the rest of the orchestra is doing. We're just going to pay attention to the tuba section, or the low-frequency brain waves, and convert those to an auditory frequency."
Conversely, creating the energizing music requires focusing on the shorter-frequency brain waves.
After Vasquez's brain waves were recorded and isolated, her information was sent to a center in New York where a patented computer program digitally converts the brain waves into music. It was e-mailed back to Peter, who made a CD for Vasquez with instructions to listen to it three or four times a day.
"When she listens to her brain (through music), her brain will recognize it (the pattern) and her brain will become what we call entrained,'" Peter explained. "It will start to fall into that same frequency and she will be able to make more relaxing brain waves.
"When she listens to the activating tape, it helps her concentrate," Peter said. "It helps her activate more so she can focus better."
It worked for Vasquez. After three weeks of listening to the roughly 10-minute relaxation tape, she'd fall asleep; she'd often awake the next morning to find her earbuds still in, her MP3 player still on.
As Peter instructed her, she listened to the recording about four times a day, and found it had added benefits. "It kind of minimized stress throughout the whole day," she said. "It calmed my body."
Origins of BMT
Because everyone's brain waves are unique, everyone's music mix is unique. But it's not Bruce Springsteen or Kanye West; it's piano music that sounds somewhat classical. "They had expert musicians as well as scientists on the team to try to figure out the best way for the brain to respond to itself," Peter said, "and this is what they came up with."
Peter is referring to the roots of brain music therapy, which trace back to 1991 at the Moscow Medical Academy in Russia. The therapy was developed by a team led by neurologist Iakov Levin.
It spread through Russia, Europe and Canada, attracting thousands of clients, and came to the U.S. two years ago through New York psychiatrist Galina Mindlin, who had worked with Levin and the team of scientists in Moscow.
Mindlin explained that individual brain-wave patterns are structurally different than music sequences, so translating brain waves into music was a complex project. "In order to translate brain-wave patterns into music, we utilize a complex algorithm based on the slow and fast brain waves at each particular moment," she said. "It took many years and thousands of EEG recordings in order to create the program."
Since Mindlin brought the practice to the U.S., she and her colleagues have treated more than 1,500 patients with brain music therapy. Peter is among 20 brain music therapists around the U.S. (All are listed on www.brainmusictreatment.com; click on "contact us.")
"In the neuroscience field, I have been very frustrated when patients have to resort to medication," Peter said. "Very early on, I was looking for alternative methods to help patients."
This method can be used in conjunction with medication to enhance the patient's chances of reducing anxiety or increasing focus, she said.
Peter charges from $550 to $1,100 for brain music therapy treatment, depending on how many visits the person needs and how much training the client wants on neurofeedback. Neurofeedback is basically learning what your brain-wave patterns are telling you and trying to respond by relaxing, focusing, etc.
Vasquez said the less costly "bare-bones" level worked for her. She got a psychological intake evaluation, an EEG reading, a personalized CD and a follow-up visit.
Most experts agree brain music therapy is still too new to make true assessments of it; still, some are not sold on it — including David Cantor, a neuropsychologist who runs Georgia-based Psychological Sciences Institute; PSI is a private psychological service corporation that specializes in standardized psychological tests and computerized brain assessment techniques.
Cantor said he was one of the first to explore brain music therapy in the 1970s, 20 years before the Moscow research began. His schedule would not allow him to give a phone interview, but he did respond with an e-mail that said, "It (brain music therapy) has very limited therapeutic ability and in fact, in some contexts, can be countertherapeutic." (He did not immediately respond to requests to elaborate.)
Others, such as Robert Thayer, a CSU Long Beach psychology professor, hadn't heard of brain music therapy but were intrigued. Thayer researches the effect of various external influences — such as nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress — on mood.
"I do know that music can be a good mood elevator," Thayer said. "In one study of ours that is very widely cited by mood scientists, we found that of 32 different ways people typically use to change a bad mood, listening to music was the second most effective." The 1994 study, called the "Self-Regulation of Mood," showed that exercise was the most effective.
Mindlin said the success rate reported among the 1,500 patients using BMT is about 85 percent.
The research on BMT includes double-blind studies in Canada, France and Russia; the largest took place in Russia, in which 58 patients with insomnia and 60 patients with anxiety disorders were monitored. The success of the treatment was measured by recording changes in brain-wave patterns as well as increases or decreases in the levels of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.
"The sustained efficiency rate is well above the level of a placebo effect," Mindlin said, adding that the patients in all three studies yielded an 82 percent to 85 percent success rate.
Mindlin said research into brain music therapy is venturing into other areas beyond reducing stress and promoting sleep. She and her colleagues theorize that many diseases begin silently with an imbalance in brain waves coupled with hormonal imbalances. Balance the brain waves and you could nip many ailments in the bud, they believe.
"In many cases, the human body may use its own reserves to fight the initial illness, if we can find out how to initiate those capabilities," Mindlin said.
That research is ongoing. In the meantime, Vasquez said she's just happy to be getting a full night's sleep.
© 2008 Ventura County Star
Orli Peter, Ph.D., BCIA-EEG
Diplomate, American Board of Psychological Specialties
Director and Founder, Center for Accelerated Psychology