Brainwave 'Music' May Soothe a Troubled Psyche

If you suffer from depression, anxiety or insomnia, a new kind of therapy could be music to your brain.

The treatment involves recording a person’s brainwaves on a computer and then converting them into music that the patient listens to on a CD. Over time, says one psychiatrist involved in developing and administering Brain Music Therapy, the mind is soothed by its own sounds so much that depression, anxiety, insomnia and attention deficit disorder can be alleviated.

“When you give a person his own brainwaves expressed as music, the brain recognizes it and responds to it and it really helps it slow down,” said Dr. Galina Mindlin, who runs the Brain Music Therapy Center in New York and worked with the doctor who created the treatment in Russia.

Another alternative form of therapy called Holosync Audio Technology, whose original purpose was to help people learn meditation faster, uses various tones and sounds to calm the brain and get the right and left sides to communicate more — which happens whenever two sides of the body are used for one activity. In the case of Holosync, some tones play in the right ear and are picked up by the left brain and some slightly different tones play in the left ear and are picked up by the right brain. In order to process and synchronize the sounds, both sides need to increase their communication with each other.

Holosync creator Bill Harris and those who have tried it say the CDs have also helped with problems like depression, anxiety, anger and substance abuse.

“It has definitely made me more relaxed, more peaceful, more calm,” said Denise Abergel, 42, a marketing consultant from Costa Mesa, Calif., who has used Holosync for about four years. “I used to be an enormously anxious person.”

But some psychiatrists doubt that such treatments are widely effective, given the lack of empirical evidence showing whether or not they work for depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder and substance abuse.

“I haven’t seen any peer-reviewed literature about it and that makes me a bit skeptical,” said Dr. Josh Gibson, a psychiatrist and clinical instructor in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “If the effect is that robust, you could actually show it.”

Clinical tests have shown that Brain Music Therapy can relieve insomnia, though there haven't been any controlled studies on its effectiveness in treating anxiety, depression and other conditions. The insomnia studies did indicate the therapy can help relieve anxiety and depression, and one Moscow study found that it can reduce or eliminate panic attacks, according to Mindlin. Harris said a study on how his system works on the brain is under way now.

“People came to us suffering from depression and/or anxiety who were on medication and many, many have told us that after using this for 12 months, they didn’t need the medication anymore,” Harris said. “But I am not making medical claims about this because we have not done controlled studies. We’re doing one now.”

Brain Music Therapy patients must go to Mindlin or one of her counterparts in Florida or New Jersey for a consultation. While there, a rubber helmet-like device is fitted over the head and brainwave measurements are taken with an EEG. The recording is then converted into a CD of piano music sounds, with both a calming relaxation segment and an energy-boosting activation segment. The consultation and CD cost $550.

Mindlin suggests listening to the 12-minute relaxation music segment at least once a day and the three-minute activation segment at least once a day but no more than two times in a row. She recommends returning in about three months for another recording session, since the process of listening regularly will change brain chemistry. To date, the center has treated about 500 patients since June 2005 and has an 82 to 85 percent success rate, according to Mindlin.

Holosync, on the other hand, involves different levels, all with their own set of CDs; the initial level costs $159. For each level, users listen for half an hour a day for the first few weeks, then for an hour a day thereafter. It’s important to hear the recordings — which incorporate sounds of rain and tolling bells — through headphones, said Harris, so the left and right ears pick up the tones intended for them. Holosync has been used by about 250,000 people in 173 countries in the 17 years since it was invented and made available to the public, according to Harris.

Brain Music Therapy is a form of what is called neurobiofeedback, a treatment technique that teaches people how to alter their brainwave patterns. The brain retunes itself with the help of its own waves to achieve a healthier, more normal chemistry than the one it had. It will not recognize the patterns and waves of other brains, however, so using someone else's music doesn't work.

"Brainwaves are like fingerprints — everyone's sound a little different," said Mindlin's publicist, Janet Appel.

And though there isn't anything to distinguish between the brainwaves of men versus women, it is possible, albeit difficult, to tell if a brain is healthy or sick, according to Mindlin.

For instance, in people afflicted with schizophrenia, some slowing of the waves can be detected in the left frontal area of the brain, she said. Conversely, in those who have mania as a result of bipolar disorder, the brainwave patterns tend to be much faster.

Like Brain Music Therapy, Holosync changes the electrical brainwave patterns of the listener — but instead of using the person's own brainwaves, it uses sound frequencies. Because the two sides of the brain begin to communicate more with each other and the mind is stimulated in much the same way it is during meditation, said Harris, people feel calmer and happier after listening to the CDs for a while.

"It really does change their mental health," Harris said. "The more the two sides of the brain are communicating together, the more pleasant you feel, the more peaceful you feel, the more you feel connected to people around you. The more one side of the brain is dominant over the other, the more you feel angry, sad and disconnected."

Harris doesn't believe Holosync should replace traditional forms of therapy, but said it can enhance existing treatments.

Psychiatrists warn that nontraditional remedies won't work for everyone, especially difficult-to-treat patients with severe mental or emotional problems.

"Many of these alternative therapies work best for the mild forms of the illnesses," Gibson said. "I don't know that they're a panacea."

For those who have been helped, however, the treatments have been a lifesaver. Lynda Erkiletian, 48, of Washington, D.C., found that her brain music helped her sleep normally again after suffering from insomnia for a year while her best friend was dying of cancer.

"It was an amazing therapy," said Erkiletian. "It's so important that people know there are alternatives."

With Holosync, there is the risk of overstimulation if the patient listens to the CDs too much, which is why it's crucial to use as advised, said Harris.

"You could overdo this in the same way you can overdo eating healthy foods or exercising," he said. "You could overstimulate yourself if you do this for hours and hours and hours because it feels so good. If someone is prone to anger, they might get angrier, or someone might get more anxious. So we have very clear instructions and caution people to be very careful."

Those listening too much to the activation segment of the Brain Music Therapy — meaning more than two times in a row — can also become overstimulated and "more irritable or reckless," according to Mindlin. There is no risk associated with how much a patient plays the relaxation segment.

San Antonio psychiatrist Dr. Martha Leatherman said people using alternative therapies should do so under the care of a doctor, realize what kind of patient population they've been developed for and tested on, and try them without expecting miracles. Sometimes, she said, the placebo effect is enough to make such treatments work.

"Almost 40 percent of any intervention — including antibiotics for pneumonia — is placebo," Leatherman said. "The brain is an extraordinarily powerful organ and can do all kinds of amazing things. It can trick itself."