And The Beat Goes On: Rhythm and the Motor System

February 21, 2020

By Karolina Kozlova, PT, DPT

Every year, thousands of physical therapists converge to a yearly conference held by the American Physical Therapy Association called “Combined Sections Meeting” to learn, present, and find information about the newest and latest research. This year was the biggest event in Denver, CO with over 18,000 therapists attending.

With hundreds of sessions hosted at this conference, attendees need to divide their time and focus on those sessions that they think will help their practice and make them a better provider.  As a neurologic physical therapist, it was no surprise that most sessions that I attended were provided by the neurology sections and ranged from therapeutic intermittent hypoxia to high-intensity interval training for stroke rehabilitation.

One of the most interesting and informed sessions was about how rhythm affects the motor system. The interaction of the auditory and motor systems, and more specifically the synchronization of the rhythmic signal and the motor response, can be demonstrated in the human body during activities such as gait training.

Since the 1970s, there has been a steady increase in research about these two systems and the intervention of Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS). The research suggests that RAS leverages auditory-motor networks to create a stable and predictable temporal synchronization between the sensory input and motor output.

In other words, when we hear a “beat”, our brain automatically processes the sound without any conscious perception and synchronizes our motor responses to move to that beat.

Music has been shown to globally activate the human brain and help with neuroplasticity.  So, when it comes to moving, we move better to a beat and with more saliency since our brain is building pathways with continued repetition.

RAS is useful in physical therapy for gait training for various neurological conditions ranging from SCI (spinal cord injury) to stroke, brain injury, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. The great thing is, it can also be applied to real-world situations as a type of assistive technology.

So what kind of music might make someone walk better, fast, and more efficiently? The beat should be familiar to the person as well as in the high groove category (stronger beat and faster tempo) versus something that’s more melancholy, slower and quieter. So go on now, listen to some beats and improve that walking!



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.