‘Mental singing’ may help people with Parkinson’s disease walk

In a new study, researchers found mental singing can improve measures of walking ability not only in people with Parkinson’s disease but also in healthy older adults.

Mental singing is singing a rhythmic song in your mind.

The research was conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis.

External cues – like music or metronome beats – are commonly recommended as a “pacemaker” to increase gait speed for people with Parkinson’s disease.

Previously, the team showed that internal cues (such as singing) produce similar motor benefits as external cues (such as listening to music) for people with Parkinson’s disease.

In the new study, they further explored how mental singing and singing aloud can improve measures of gait in older adults, with or without Parkinson’s disease.

They 30 adults with Parkinson’s disease and 30 healthy adults, aged 50 or older.

Participants performed walking tests under three conditions: hearing music or singing aloud while walking (external cues) and singing in their heads while walking (internal cue).

All three trials used the same song: a rhythmic version of Row, Row, Row Your Boat.

Participants were first asked to walk along to the beat of the song played aloud, then as they sang the song out loud or in their heads.

The study also tested the effects of hearing/singing the song at different tempos: at the person’s preferred walking speed, 10%slower, or 10% faster.

As expected, people with Parkinson’s disease walked slower, took shorter steps, and had higher levels of gait variability and asymmetry.

The external cues – hearing music or singing aloud – led to improvements in gait performance, including velocity, cadence, and stride length.

That was so for both the participants with Parkinson’s disease and healthy older adults.

However, only the internal cue – mental singing – led to reduced variability in gait measures, indicating increased stability.

The findings suggest that mental singing might be a more effective tool to increase walking speed in people with Parkinson’s disease – counteracting the slow, shuffling gait characteristic of the disease.

The team explains that internal cues may pose less of a challenge compared to external cues.

Future work needs to optimizing the use of internal cues to aid movement. This can be more effective to help people with gait disorders related to aging or neurological disease.

The lead author of the study is Elinor Harrison, Ph.D.

The study is published in The Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy.

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