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Recreational Music-Making Reverses Stress on the Genomic Level

MEADVILLE, PA—A groundbreaking study due to be published in the February 2005 issue of the international research journal Medical Science Monitor shows for the first time that playing a musical instrument can reverse multiple components of the human stress response on the genomic level. The study's principal investigator, Barry Bittman, M.D. of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, PA, says these unique findings not only shed new light on the value of active music participation, but also extend our understanding of individualized human biological stress responses on an unprecedented level.


Barry Bittman, MD
Medical Advisor

The research team led by Bittman included researchers from Loma Linda University School of Medicine and Applied Biosystems, the developer of the original technology that led to the successful mapping of the human genome announced in June, 2000.

During the first hour of the novel two-phase study, researchers employed a frustrating puzzle assembly exercise to induce stress in 32 adult volunteers who did not consider themselves "musical." In the second hour, subjects were randomly divided into three groups. One subset of individuals continued the stressful activity, while another was allowed to de-stress, relax and read newspapers or magazines of their choice. The third group participated in their first group-based recreational music making keyboard program called the Clavinova Connection which focuses on nurturing, support and non-verbal creative expression, as opposed to mastery and performance.

Before and after each phase, the researchers sampled subjects' blood for 45 known genomic markers or molecular switches that literally "turn on" biological responses closely associated with health challenges that range from heart disease to cancer, and from diabetes to inflammatory diseases.

Instead of manifesting a common biological reaction to the stress-induction experience, responses differed considerably from person to person. Dr. Bittman said, "While we were challenged at first by such a wide range of responses, closer examination of the data revealed what we eventually termed individualized genomic stress induction signatures. We were actually measuring biological diversity in action."

These results shed light on how people exposed to precisely the same stressor react biologically and psychologically in their own unique ways. A combination of factors including one's health, genetics, conditioning and a host of situational and psychosocial variables ultimately determines each individual's distinctive stress responses. While the precise biological links between stress and disease remain elusive, it isn't surprising that under the same chronic stressful conditions, one person might experience a heart attack while another may develop high blood pressure.

Yet beyond stress-induction, the research shows that the stress-reduction impact was far greater for individuals participating in their first group keyboard lesson than for subjects who simply relaxed and read newspapers and magazines. No statistically significant reversals of initial stress-induced gene expression were noted in individuals who continued the puzzle exercise during the second hour. In contrast, six genes in the relaxation group reversed during phase two of the study, compared with 19 genes in the music group.

Bittman added, "Our preliminary findings demonstrate that active participation in a group keyboard program was far more effective at reversing stress signatures than simply relaxing and reading newspapers and magazines. This is intriguing from an integrative lifestyle perspective. One possible explanation relates to the degree of active engagement in a calming expressive activity in contrast to merely settling down to relax and read. With ongoing research, recreational music making could potentially serve as a rational stress reduction activity along with other lifestyle strategies that include healthy nutrition and exercise."

"In simple terms, using a unique combination of the latest genomic technologies, we showed for the very first time that we could turn off the DNA-based switches that literally turn on components of human stress response," said Muhammad A. Sharaf, Ph.D., Senior Staff Scientist at Applied Biosystems. "The far-reaching potential of inducing and subsequently reversing gene expression in this manner introduces new and exciting possibilities for testing and tailoring specific treatments to an individual, rather than a group."

"From a stress research perspective, this study introduces a dynamic genomic framework for more fully understanding the complex biological impact and potential health benefits of playing a musical instrument," commented George Stefano, Ph.D., Director, Neuroscience Research Institute - State University of New York (SUNY) and Vice Chair, Board of Directors - Research Foundation of SUNY. "The study's innovative technological approach holds great promise for the future development and testing of health strategies geared specifically to the individual. Furthermore, it adds considerable insight into earlier studies demonstrating positive health outcomes that come from listening to music."

In the context of current stress assessment methods including self-reported surveys, the researchers recognize that the utilization of a person's stress signature for personalizing a host of healthcare interventions sounds like a futuristic endeavor. They suggest this study represents a mere glimpse of the potential that exists today for scientists to improve quality of life by better understanding the complexity of the human stress response.

The study was supported by Yamaha Corporation of America and Applied Biosystems. For information about our research-based recreational music-making program check out HealthRHYTHMS!
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