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Opera legend Renee Fleming teams up with Dr. Francis Collins to study how music can improve health


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Amna Nawaz: Two giants of music and science are merging their knowledge to propel advancements in body and mind.

Researchers, therapists, and artists from around the world gathered to explore what is known and what is yet to be discovered.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look and a listen for our ongoing arts and health coverage on Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown : She is a singer, one of the world's most beloved sopranos. But at times in her remarkable career, Renee Fleming has experienced terrible bouts of somatic pain, the body's way of distracting her from the mental anxiety brought from performance.

Renee Fleming, Singer: I was never a natural performer. And so I just kept reading and reading about the mind-body connection, trying to understand more about what was causing this, et cetera. And I discovered that the medical profession and neuroscientists were studying music. And I asked him why one day.

Jeffrey Brown : He is the renowned physician-geneticist best known for his landmark discoveries of disease genes and leadership of the Human Genome Project.

Dr. Francis Collins, Former Director, National Institutes of Health: Today, we celebrate the revelation of the first draft of the human book on life.

Jeffrey Brown : Francis Collins headed the National Institutes of Health, the world's largest supporter of biomedical research, for 12 years until 2021.

Dr. Francis Collins: I'm a doctor. I want to find every possible way to help people who are suffering from illnesses or other kinds of life experiences that are limiting their ability to flourish. I want to make everybody flourish, and music is such a powerful source of that kind of influence.

Jeffrey Brown : Together, they are leading proponents of a marriage of arts and health, advocates for research, understanding, and practice in the nexus of music and the brain.

We talked recently on the NIH campus about their music and health initiative, now in its seventh year.

Renee Fleming: I believe the arts should be embedded in health care across the boards.

Jeffrey Brown : Embedded meaning?

Renee Fleming: Meaning, we already have it in many, many places. Many hospitals have discovered just how beneficial it is to have creative arts therapists on staff. Children's hospitals should have a creative arts studio, I think, available to parents and their children and families. So, I just think it should be everywhere in health care.

Jeffrey Brown : It's a growing movement, one we have been reporting on around the country, including neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins studying music's impact on dementia patients, a hospital at the University of Florida incorporating arts into its care, individuals who've suffered traumatic brain injuries, like former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, playing the French horn to help rewire her brain and rebuild her ability to speak.

Our understanding of the brain's connections and responses is still in early stages, Francis Collins says, with projects like the NIH-funded BRAIN Initiative helping show how individual circuits connect and respond. We do know some basics, however.

Dr. Francis Collins: I think you can say the acoustic cortex, which is where your brain processes incoming sound, and particularly musical sound, does have some pretty interesting circuits. It's also plastic. It responds to training.

If you look at the brain of somebody who had intense musical training before age 7, you can actually see that part of the cortex is a little larger than in somebody who did not have that. So, our brains are responding to the environment very clearly in that way.

And then you can say, OK, if you have a musical experience that affects you, you can see how that signal that starts out in the acoustic cortex spreads to many other parts of the brain.

Jeffrey Brown : Maybe you have had an MRI? Renee Fleming got in and sang for two hours.


Renee Fleming: When I show this video to people, I always say, well, no Grammys for this performance.


Jeffrey Brown : One interesting finding, that for an experienced singer like Fleming, her brain circuits were more active while she thought about or imagined singing than when she actually sang.

Did that surprise you?

Renee Fleming: It surprised me a great deal. It's also -- I think what's even more surprising to me is that music actually is in every known mapped part of the brain. So it's extraordinarily diverse and throughout the entire brain, as we know, as we currently understand it.

Jeffrey Brown : The research so far has a wide range of implications for child development, Alzheimer's, and other forms of dementia, Parkinson's, and other conditions and interventions.

Some research goes on in labs, some in the world, as in a study in which individuals were offered singing lessons. One group was given individual training, the other as part of a chorus.

Dr. Francis Collins: For 12 weeks, and to just see what happens as far as their health, the people that had individual singing, they did OK. The people in the choir, by all kinds of measures, were actually affected in a very positive way.

Many of them had chronic pain. Their chronic pain was noticeably reduced. They had various measures of personal attitudes. Their attitude toward generosity went straight up, and their oxytocin levels went up too, as another sort of hormonal measure of good will, good sense of health.

Renee Fleming: My favorite is, postpartum depression is tremendously benefited by singing in a choir. I would never have -- I wouldn't have guessed that.

Narrator: Having even one risk factor...

Jeffrey Brown : In fact, you know those advertisements for drugs we're all bombarded with?

Narrator: Ask your doctor or pharmacist if Paxlovid is right for you.

Jeffrey Brown : Renee Fleming has one she'd like to see.

Renee Fleming: Ask your doctor if music therapy is right for you.


Jeffrey Brown : As a kind of prescription.

Renee Fleming: Exactly. Exactly.


Dr. Francis Collins: The prescription. Why not?

Jeffrey Brown : Yes, but you have to -- you're saying it still has to be shown exactly in a scientific method...

Dr. Francis Collins: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown : ... for a doctor to be willing to prescribe it.

Dr. Francis Collins: Sure. That's our system, and I'm totally behind it. You need evidence that this actually isn't just a nice thing; it actually improves outcomes.

I'm pretty convinced from the data we have that's the case for various places, but let's tighten that up. Let's make it absolutely incontrovertible. And then you will have a better chance with the insurance companies saying OK, because that may save them money in the long run.

Man: Let's listen to this melody line as it floats all the way up.

Jeffrey Brown : At this recent gathering and others, Fleming and Collins are advancing new findings through a variety of collaborations, including NIH Music and Health with 20 NIH institutes, the Kennedy Center's Sound Health partnership, and the Renee Fleming Foundation.

Everything you're talking about requires a kind of buy-in from your communities, the arts world and the science world. But is there still pushback?

Dr. Francis Collins: There's a bit, but I think were getting some real momentum going. It doesn't hurt that scientists are also musicians. At least, many of them are.

This workshop, we invited multiple leadership at NIH to come and take part, and they all said pretty much yes, and they went away saying, that was even more interesting than I thought.

Jeffrey Brown : A young person now goes to the music conservatory, you want them to study therapy, science, health?

Renee Fleming: Well, these would be divisions within a conservatory or university.

But there's definite buy-in now. But when I started, people were saying exactly what you're saying, is, well, we have too much to do already with what were doing, in terms of presenting, and we're strapped, and the funding is difficult, et cetera, et cetera.

But I think pretty much everyone is on board now, because we're community service providers. So, I think people who run performing arts organizations and conservatories are starting to see the benefit of it.

Jeffrey Brown : And these two don't just talk about bringing their disciplines together. They have been known to give it literal form, as amateur musician Francis Collins accompanies science-fascinated Renee Fleming.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.



Amna Nawaz: And Fleming has edited a collection of essays from scientists, artists, and therapists called "Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness." That's due out this spring.

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