Keeping Our Bodies In Tune With Our Prescriptions

We know that listening to the right song can change people's moods. But can music also help prevent adverse drug effects?


Music has a profound effect on the mind and the body. Sound-based therapies help reduce symptoms of anxiety or pain, and they underpin strategies for speech therapy and better coordination of movement in Parkinson’s disease by establishing a sense of rhythm. This may be just the tip of the iceberg.

It may come as no surprise that when music affects our mood, it affects the chemical messengers in our blood. This includes compounds such as hormones (like endorphins, testosterone, and estrogen), neurotransmitters (like dopamine) and cytokines (immune modulators like interleukin-6). While this is a well-established truth, there has been little research into how we can use music strategically to help prescription drugs do their job.

Clinical pharmacologist Tony Kiang, associate professor of pharmacy & pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Alberta, is investigating the effects of music to see whether he can use it to control the way that drugs are metabolized by the body.

Over one in nine trips to the emergency room are triggered by adverse drug effects. Doctors try to prescribe the right dose and timing, but every drug gets processed by the body: absorbed, used, chemically modified, broken down, and eventually cleared. Not all of these are always beneficial, and music may help control these processes.

It turns out that the chemical messengers that are released when we listen to music are made and metabolized through the same chemical pathways that affect drug transport and metabolism. So if Kiang and his team can figure out how various properties of music — like tempo, rhythm, genre, harmony, and auditory frequency — affect these pathways, they may be able to prescribe a patient-specific piece of music to play to turn them up or down.

Kiang plans to start by composing original pieces of music to have full systematic control over every aspect of the audio presented to study participants. The study will recruit healthy volunteers to listen to the music and then have their blood tested for compounds that represent major metabolic pathways.

By comparing these results to control volunteers who didn’t listen to the music tracks, the team will get a better handle on how metabolic pathways are altered. The goal is to map how music parameters affect metabolic pathways so that music can be matched and tailored to a variety of drugs to enhance their benefits and reduce their side effects.

If successful, this work could carry benefits across medicine, whenever drug treatments are used.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.