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Pa-BAM, pa-BAM, pa-BAM. This could be the new sound of protection against cancer, AIDS, and influenza and other viral diseases. In the first study of physiological effects of drumming on human biology, researchers at the Meadville (PA) Medical Center have associated simple drumming with an increase in natural killer (NK) cell activity, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)-to-cortisol ratios, and lymphokine-activated killer (LAK) cell activity, which are among the mechanisms by which the human body combats cancer and viral illnesses.1
Drum circles have been part of the healing rituals in many cultures since before history was recorded. Although drum circles are gaining increasing popularity as complementary therapeutic strategies, the biological effects of drumming have not been documented. One day five years ago, Barry Bittman, MD, CEO and medical director of the Meadville Medical Center’s Mind-Body Wellness Center, walked in on a roomful of 600 health care professionals sitting in a huge circle and drumming away their cares. One woman held a drum to his throat area and hit a beat. "I could feel the sound waves. It was like an ancient ultrasound," Bittman recalls.
Bittman, who had been studying the immune-enhancing effects of laughter, immediately saw the possibilities for drumming as a group activity that could be useful for stress relief and general well-being. But he didn’t imagine his simple study would lead him into a realm where sound and movement actually may prompt the body’s natural defenses against immune-related disorders.
Eventually, Bittman selected for his study 111 age- and sex-matched volunteers (mean age 30.4) with no prior interest in drumming and screened against smoking, alcoholism, and chronic disease. He randomized them to six groups ranging from one group that sat quietly and read magazines for an hour and another that listened to drumming to four groups that experimented with different methods of simple drumming rhythms. Venous blood was drawn before the session began and again after the hour-long session concluded; each participant completed the Beck Anxiety and Depression inventories twice.
The following measures were taken before and after the drumming session: plasma cortisol, plasma DHEA, plasma DHEA-to-cortisol ratio, NK cell activity, LAK cell activity, plasma interleukin-2, and plasma interferon-gamma.
"The finding of DHEA-to-cortisol ratios in experimental subjects suggests a shift in adrenal steroids in an immunoenhancing direction, while the LAK and NK cell activity confirms immune system enhancement," says Bittman.
Past research has shown the NK cell activity is an important component in maintaining health in women with breast cancer, and increased DHEA-to-cortisol ratios improve immune response to AIDS, influenza, and West Nile virus.
Bittman found the most profound effects were measured in a group that drummed under the instruction of a music therapist where elevations of all plasma measures were significant except interleukin-2 and interferon-gamma. The Beck inventory scores did not change. Bittman thinks the effects on that group were the strongest because participants were given some instruction, they were given time to relax, and the instructor told them to express themselves though the drumming without worry about whether they were doing it "right" or "wrong."
|The Principles of Group Drumming|
|•||Response to rhythm is basic to human functioning, making these percussion activities and techniques highly motivating to people of all ages and backgrounds.|
|•||Pure percussion activities are interesting and enjoyable to all people regardless of ethnic and cultural background, musical preferences, or age range, making these activities useful in creating groups that are fun and positive for a wide variety of people.|
|•||Participation in active group percussion experiences has physical benefits including sustained physical activity, relaxation, and the use of fine motor skills.|
|•||Active group participation creates an identity, and a sense of belonging is created because participants are actively making music together and the sustained repetition of a steady beat draws people together physically, emotionally, and mentally (rhythmic entrainment).|
|•||Percussion activities can be done with little or no previous musical background or training, making these experiences accessible to everyone.|
Source: Barbara Crowe, PhD, director of music therapy, Arizona State University, Phoenix.
"Group drumming music therapy — carried out according to this protocol and using a specific approach for facilitating sessions that emphasizes camaraderie, group acceptance, light-hearted participation, and nonjudgmental performance — appears to attenuate and/or reverse specific neuroendocrine and neuroimmune patterns of modulation associated with the classic stress response," Bittman wrote in conclusion. In a much less esoteric sense, he says, drumming probably works because it is fun and easy and stress-relieving rather than stress-producing.
Bittman’s clinic has several drumming groups, including those for patients with heart and lung diseases, cancer, diabetes, and asthma. He says he has several future studies in mind, including one to determine if the immune-enhancing effects of single hour-long sessions can be extended with regular drumming. "Now that we have established the baseline, in future studies, we want to look at people with chronic diseases to see what effect drumming might have on them," says Bittman. "I think this will someday be shown to be valuable and probably even more effective with older people."
It definitely works with older people, according to Barbara Crowe, PhD, director of music therapy at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Crowe has used drumming as well as a number of musical modalities to treat patients with a various diseases and conditions.
She says the results were the most impressive, and stunning, when she drummed with a group of Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing home. "We put can drums in their hands and start playing with them. In minutes, they start playing along, singing, and even talking. They literally wake up and become something like their former selves for a brief time during and after the drumming session. It’s absolutely amazing to watch," says Crowe. The drumming therapy has been so successful that she invited family members to the sessions so they can interact with their loved ones in a way resembling the communication that once took place.
In Alzheimer’s disease, plaque formations cause patients to lose their ability to organize thoughts and initiate behavior. "The rhythm externally provides organization that allows them to think and act, however briefly," theorizes Crowe.
She recalls one woman who came to her after a drumming session, tears of gratitude streaming down her cheeks, to express thanks that her husband was able to hold her in his arms for the first time in five years.
"This kind of therapy provides quality of life that is so important in the face of such a devastating disease that effects everything, simply everything in a person’s life and that of his family," Crowe says.
The power of drumming is being carried even further, says Crowe. Researchers at Colorado State University now are conducting research on assisting stroke patients to regain their ability to walk through the rhythmic intervention of the drum. She recommends programs conducted by trained professional music therapists for the best results.
[For more information, contact:
• The American Music Therapy Association, Silver Springs, MD. Web: www.musictherapy.org. Telephone: (301) 589-3300.]
1. Bittman B, Berk L, Felten D, et al. Composite effects of group drumming music therapy on modulation of neuroendocrine-immune parameters in normal subjects. Alternative Therapy 2001; 7:38-47.