SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers at the University of Utah have found that music might alleviate pain and inflammation, and enhance the effects of pain relievers like ibuprofen and CBD.
Drs. Cameron Metcalf and Greg Bulaj have spent the past few years playing Mozart’s music to mice in a lab to try to unwrap the secrets of epilepsy treatment and management of chronic pain. Pain and epilepsy, while they are different conditions present similar struggles — limited treatment options, debilitating lack of control, and medications that just aren’t effective enough. Metcalf and Bulaj believe music (like Mozart) may be the answer.
“Cameron and I have been working on developing new drugs for pain and epilepsy,” said Bulaj, an associate professor in medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah and senior author on the paper. “I’ve also been looking at how drugs can work together with music.”
Mozart has been shown in a variety of studies to mitigate the negative effects of epilepsy. Bulaj and his team hoped they might not only learn more about music’s effect on the disorder but also on chronic pain symptoms.
Bulaj and his team utilized mice and rats in the study, controlling the conditions so they all were experiencing the same living environment. The same Mozart compositions demonstrated to help epilepsy in past research were utilized in the study, with jarring portions of songs smoothed out with minor editing to avoid startling the animals.
The mice were exposed to the music three weeks in advance of their participation in the treatment. The control group and study group were each moved to a different room during the “dark cycle” and into a housing facility during the “light cycle,” according to the study. During the “dark cycle,” the study mice were exposed to the music while the control group was exposed only to ambient noise.
The mice were all given one of four pain relievers, including ibuprofen, levetiracetam, cannabidiol (CBD) and galanin analog NAX 5055, the study said. Specific injuries were inflicted on the mice to simulate post-surgical pain, and in some, a virus was induced to cause the mice to have seizures mimicking epilepsy.
The results demonstrated that pain relief from the ibuprofen-music pair improved outcomes by more than 90 percent. The other models showed that inflammation was reduced by 70 percent.
“We were looking at inflammatory pain,” explained Metcalf, a research assistant professor in Pharmacology and Toxicology and first author on the paper. “We asked first, ‘Does it reduce inflammation?’ Then we looked to see whether it reduced swelling alone and in combination with other established and experimental pain drugs. We also looked to see if it reduced the pain responses there.”
The results showed music therapy by itself had a little bit of an effect, according to Metcalf. When given in combination with various drugs, however, the positive impacts on pain and inflammation treatment are very clear. It also appears there need not be very much of the pain reliever in the mouse’s system to show results.
“We selected a dose of ibuprofen that has a relatively minimal effect,” Metcalf said. “In animals that had been previously exposed to music, we saw a great increase.”
“We used a model of epilepsy, and we did see an anti-seizure effect,” Metcalf explained. “But what was most remarkable was that we actually saw a reduced mortality rate. The particular seizure model we’re working with actually has a mortality rate of up to 50 percent, and we saw a reduced (rate of death).”
The researchers hope to explore further whether they can reduce epilepsy’s mortality rate in addition to controlling the number of seizures occurring. This could help in preventing Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy.
“One way we want to go forward is to understand what it is about this music and its components that are giving this sort of pain relieving and drug enhancing effects,” Metcalf explained.
Bulaj was able to recruit collaborators from a local musical nonprofit, the Gifted Music School, who are working to analyze the compositions to better understand how the structure works.
“They already have identified things like rhythm, tempo, punctuation, phrases, and sequences,” Bulaj said. “We hope to look for this Mozart-like structure in other classical composers. Maybe (medicinal compositions) will even include Lady Gaga or Katy Perry.”
The study has potential limitations, with the largest among them being mice hearing in different frequencies than humans. The researchers hope that human trials will help answer enigmatic questions arising from animal trials.