CBR supports fundraiser for music therapy

Scientists from the Centre for Brain Research met Kiwi band Titanium this weekend, along with singers Anika Moa and Boh Runga.

Associate Professor Lynette Tippett, Dr Hinemoa Elder, Dr Clare McCann, Professor Suzanne Purdy, Professor Richard Faull and Alison Talmage meet the band Titanium

Associate Professor Lynette Tippett, Dr Hinemoa Elder, Dr Clare McCann, Professor Suzanne Purdy, Professor Richard Faull and Alison Talmage meet the band Titanium

The members of the SPICCATO research team were entertained by top kiwi stars, as part of a gala dinner fundraiser to help raise funds for the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre (RMTC).

The SPICCATO project (funded by the Health Research Council) is investigating the benefits of CeleBRation Choir participation. The community singing group provides choral singing therapy for people with communication difficulties through brain diseases, like stroke and Parkinson’s disease. The team includes music therapist Alison Talmage, who has a joint role at the RMTC and also leads the CeleBRation Choir.

Professor Suzanne Purdy, Laura Fogg and Alison Talmage meet RMTC founders Hinewehi Moha and husband George Bradfield.

Professor Suzanne Purdy, Laura Fogg and Alison Talmage meet RMTC founders Hinewehi Mohi and husband George Bradfield.

The RMTC was established in 2004 by singer Hinewehi Mohi, whose daughter Hineraukatauri has cerebral palsy. After experiencing the benefits of music in the UK, Hinewehi turned to the New Zealand music industry to support her goal of establishing music therapy in New Zealand, helping children with developmental and learning difficulties.

The RMTC now supports hundreds of children each year, and is also starting to work with adults in conjunction with Music Therapy New Zealand. The CeleBRation Choir researchers are also keen to develop the benefits of music therapy for people with brain disease.

Overall the star-filled evening raised approximately $185,000 for the Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre.

Lecture on listening and language

Professor Suzanne Purdy, an expert in speech science, will deliver her inaugural lecture as professor at The University of Auckland on Thursday 1 December. She will discuss the science of listening and speaking, and the links between psychoacoustics, communication and quality of life.

“Communication can occur in many ways, through written text, gesture, sign language, and through speech,” explains Professor Purdy. “Psychoacoustics – the ability to perceive subtle differences in sounds – underpins the remarkable speech perception and speech production abilities of humans. Psychoacoustic abilities develop as children mature and then deteriorate as people age. They depend on hearing sensitivity and the brain’s auditory processing capacity.”

“Oral communication is a key human activity that underpins language learning and other areas of development and participation in everyday life for most people. So quality of life can be affected for people who have difficulties with hearing, auditory processing, speech perception and/or language.”

“Since communication is a shared endeavour, families and communities can also be greatly affected. Discriminating speech sounds, listening and speaking are abilities that most people do not attend to greatly until they encounter someone who was born with a communication problem or who acquired a problem as a result of accident, illness or aging.”

In the lecture Professor Purdy will review her 30 years of research and clinical work aimed at understanding the diagnosis, impact and treatment of communication disorders in children and adults.

Professor Purdy is Head of Discipline of Speech Science in the Department of Psychology. Her research interests include the electrophysiological assessment of auditory function in infants and children, objective assessment of hearing aid performance, auditory processing disorders and reading delay, aural rehabilitation in hearing impaired adults, and speech perception in children. She is currently running a study into singing as a therapy for people with stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Purdy is a clinical audiologist who began her career at Auckland Hospital and National Audiology Centre. She was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study for her PhD at the University of Iowa and returned to New Zealand in 1990 when the country’s first academic programme in audiology was established. Professor Purdy worked for several years at the National Acoustic Laboratories in Sydney during which time she established a new clinical technique for evaluating hearing aid function in infants with hearing loss. She returned to New Zealand with her family eight years ago to head the newly established Discipline of Speech Science at The University of Auckland.

Professor Purdy’s talk is part of The University of Auckland’s 2011 Inaugural Lectures for new professors. It will be held in room 732.201 at the Tāmaki Innovation Campus from 6pm on Thursday 1 December, with refreshments at Café Europa, Building 733, from 5:30pm. It is open to the public and free of charge, and anyone is welcome to attend.

Singing for health

Auckland City Mayor Len Brown sang with members of the CeleBRation Choir this week. The community music therapy group offers singing therapy to people with communication problems through brain disease.

Singing for health

Mayor Len Brown sang with members of the CeleBRation Choir, who have communication problems through brain disease

Mayor Brown’s love of singing is well known, and he was very keen to visit the 30-strong CeleBRation Choir, run by the Centre


for Brain Research at The University of Auckland. Members include people who live with the effects of stroke, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, along with other neurological conditions. People with these conditions may have problems speaking but find they can still sing.

Mayor Brown was treated to a list of well-known songs, solos and rounds before he discussed his love of singing and its role in his own recovery from a heart attack. He then led a rendition of the Christmas carol “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and gave a solo performance of a new waiata “Ko Tamaki Matou” celebrating the history and future of Auckland.

His visit provided a snapshot into some of the University’s latest research around brain disease and recovery, led by scientists in the Centre for Brain Research’s Brain Recovery Clinic. He took part in a demonstration of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation by Dr Jim Stinear, an exercise rehabilitation expert. This electromagnetic stimulation technology is described by Jim as “a simple but effective concept” providing new rehabilitation hope for people with movement problems through stroke.

The CeleBRation Choir choral group began as a social gathering for people affected by brain disease in September 2009. Now, two years on, it is not only a successful meeting of camaraderie, good cheer and melodies but also the subject of a number of academic studies into the unique benefits of singing therapy for the brain.

A team at the Centre for Brain Research is studying the CeleBRation Choir as a potential therapy for people with communication disorders through brain disease. Called SPICCATO (Stroke and Parkinson’s: Investigating Community Choir Engagement and Therapeutic Outcomes), the research is funded by the Health Research Council.  The team is led by Speech Science Head Professor Suzanne Purdy, and will look at therapeutic benefits from taking part in group singing – including people who have aphasia through stroke, and people with Parkinson’s disease who can develop voice or speech problems.

The Choir meets weekly on Mondays at the University’s Tāmaki Innovation Campus. New members are always welcome. For information on dates look at our website: http://www.fmhs.auckland.ac.nz/faculty/cbr/events/choir.aspx

New hope for neurological patients with Health Research Council Funding

Groundbreaking research developing new treatments for neurological disorders has been given the go-ahead with funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC). Over $7 million of grant funding has been awarded to scientists working in the Centre for Brain Research.

The new programmes include $4.46M over five years to Professor Mike Dragunow and his team running the Biobank and Human Brain Bank. Over 100,000 New Zealanders are currently living with neurodegenerative conditions. The rate of Alzheimer’s disease is increasing in New Zealand, and CBR researchers are contributing to the global effort to find more effective treatments to combat this, and other devastating neurological disorders.

Professor Dragunow will work with Professor Richard Faull and other scientists to study the underlying causes and treatments for Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease. The world-class team of neuroscientists and chemists has well-developed linkages with neurosurgeons, gerontologists, other clinical groups in the District Health Boards involved in clinical trials, and with NZ Biotech industries. Their goal is to translate lab-based research into therapies for patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases.

Other projects funded include a study to determine personalized treatment pathways for stroke patients. Dr Cathy Stinear and her team at the Brain Recovery Clinic will use MRI and other techniques to define the rehabilitation strategy which will work best for each patient. In another project, Professor Laura Bennet’s team will examine whether stem cells can help brain-injured preterm babies. Meanwhile Professor Suzanne Purdy’s speech therapy team will look at therapeutic outcomes from being part of the CeleBRation Choir.

HRC New Programmes:

Professor Michael Dragunow, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 923 6403
Neurodegeneration in the Human Brain – Mechanisms and Therapeutic Targets
60 months, $4,467,504

HRC Projects:

Professor Laura Bennet, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 373 7599 ext 84890
Can Pluripotent Amnion Epithelial Cells help the Injured Preterm Brain?
36 months, $1,154,402

Professor Valery Feigin, AUT University, phone (09) 921 9166
Extension to the Traumatic Brain Injury Burden in New Zealand Study 
14 months, $345,465

Dr Cathy Stinear, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 923 3779 ext 83779
TRIO: Targeted Rehabilitation, Improved Outcomes
36 months, $1,126,268

HRC Feasibility Study Grants:

Professor Suzanne Purdy, The University of Auckland, phone (09) 373 7599 ext 82073
SPICCATO: Stroke and Parkinson’s Community Choir Engagement and Therapeutic Outcomes
12 months, $149,986

Young at heart is a state of mind

By Laura Fogg

“Awwwoooah. I feel good. I knew that I would now.” So go the song lyrics, sung in the inimitable deadpan style of the ‘Young @ Heart Chorus’. This American singing group for the over 70s visits New Zealand shores on the 6th December, with hugely anticipated concerts in Auckland and other cities. And in case you miss them live, the critically acclaimed film of the same name will be screened on Sunday 5th December on TV3.

The thirty-strong choir takes modern day pop songs, and puts their own twist on the words with all the gravitas and perspective that comes from the twilight years of the life spectrum. Songs include Coldplay’s ‘Fix you’, Talking Heads ‘Road to Nowhere’ and James Brown’s ‘I got you (I feel good)’. Yet why all the fuss for a group of past-it pensioners with average singing voices?

Well watch this choir and you’ll find there’s something highly infectious about the guts, stamina and joie de vivre of their performances. Not only are the concerts inspiring for us all as we grow older, but the energy they convey gives many people hope that old age can still be fun and sociable. For me, it’s a message to enjoy life whatever your age.

But is there anything more scientific going on in our brains as we watch the performances and perhaps sing along? Well research from across the globe seems to be indicating there is. Music making is pretty special neurologically, as it engages so many brain circuits, functions and perceptions. Singing itself is unique, as we humans have an innate ability to produce song as a form of expression, spanning every culture in the world. Sing a song to a toddler, and chances are they will sing along with you. Despite many people claiming they can’t sing, biologically, singing is as natural to us as speaking.

However, research is showing that different areas of the brain control singing compared with speaking. MRI imaging studies by Dr Reiker in Germany show that singing involves the right motor cortex, right anterior insula, and left cerebellum whereas speaking produces the opposite response pattern. This leads many scientists to think that singing could be a therapeutic option for people with speech problems.

The author Oliver Sachs in his popular book ‘Musicophilia’ has documented that people with aphasia, a language disorder frequently caused by stroke, often can’t speak a word and yet can still sing. The potentially miraculous qualities of song are even being investigated by leading neurologists and researchers at Harvard University in the US. Melodic Intonation Therapy, where music therapists sing sentences with the patient, is indeed showing some results for speech improvement.  

Back in Auckland it’s a big theme for the CeleBRation Choir as well. This community choir features patients with stroke, Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders, who all have problems with their speech. Helped by volunteers like myself from the Centre for Brain Research, and led by music therapist Alison Talmage, the group uses singing as a form of expression and vocal exercise.

Yet more than that, singing is about have a stomping great time with other people. It’s about feeling connected with the group, hearing your own voice harmonising and in unison with others. Most people who sing in a choir report coming away with a feeling of wellbeing, and it’s backed up by research. Dr Stephen Clift at Canterbury Christ Church University in the UK examined 1124 choral singers in Australia, England and Germany, and found a significant correlation to psychological wellbeing.

Belonging to a choir gives a sense of collaboration, meaning and purpose to members who may be experiencing problems in other aspects of their lives. Being part of a wider group requires full cooperation from individuals, meaning they leave behind their own problems as they contribute to the whole. So I for one will be singing along at full volume while the ‘Young @ Heart’ singers belt out ‘I feel good’.


The CeleBRation Choir will be performing in concert on December 11th at 3pm, at Saint Luke’s Church Remuera.