Music has long been touted for its healing abilities, whether it’s helping to cope with loss or evoking old memories. Today, an ambitious medical start-up – with backing from the world’s largest music company – is looking to use music for a much more clinical purpose: teaching people to walk again.
MedRhythms is a Portland, Maine-based medical startup founded in 2015 that combines music and healthcare technology to help patients with neurological injuries and diseases improve their ability to walk. It is growing rapidly, having closed a $ 25 million funding round in July, and its technology has been tested in major hospitals nationwide, including the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General Hospital. . Now, MedRhythms has entered into another crucial partnership, a licensing agreement with Universal Music Group that gives the company’s platform and its patient base access to one of the most comprehensive music catalogs.
“Anyone can understand the fact that music evokes emotions and memories, and that is the social science of music, but what MedRhythms is doing is changing that paradigm to look at music only through the prism of neuroscience, ”said the co-founder and CEO of MedRhythms. Brian Harris. “Music has a profound impact on our brain, objectively. Regardless of age, culture, ability or disability, almost everyone’s brain responds to music the same way. At a high level, when we humans passively listen to the music we love, it engages parts of our brain responsible for movement, language, and attention. There is no other stimulus on Earth that engages our brain like music does.
The basis of MedRhythms’ research comes from what is called auditory motor training, a subconscious connection between a person’s auditory and motor systems. The average person displays such a bond when they nod or stomp their foot to the beat of a song. People with neurological damage or diseases like stroke or Parkinson’s disease often have damaged motor systems, but because of the connection to the auditory system, Harris says, music works as a powerful external stimulus to activate. again the engine system more efficiently. The process could help with neuroplasticity, the process that allows our brains to adapt and learn even as we age.
During a session, MedRhythms patients connect sensors to their shoes and listen to music through an app with headphones while the program follows patients’ gait and allows algorithms to change the music according to the beat. Patients walk to the sound of music, which speeds up or slows down as a result.
Success with MedRhythms is far from foolproof – patients need a certain level of walking and there is no guarantee that therapy will work on a particular person – but results up to present have been convincing. Patients saw noticeable improvement after MedRhythms intervention, with Harris recording the most notable success for stroke victims. A super-responder began to see significant improvement in gait for up to 20 years after having a stroke. MedRhythms’ research ultimately resulted in the company’s products being granted breakthrough device status from the United States Food and Drug Administration.
The partnership between MedRhythms and UMG is unique in the world of music. Since the music on the MedRhythms platform will be used for strictly medical purposes, the two companies had to develop what UMG calls a one-of-a-kind, FDA-compliant prescription music license.
“At the end of the day, it’s basically a subscription that is prescribed,” says Michael Nash, executive vice president of digital strategy at UMG. “This involves our key principles across all subscription platforms, but it’s far from a typical partnership for us. It is an experimental era. This is the first time anyone we know of has licensed an FDA approved prescription music platform in the United States, and it is a significant first.
The partnership of the two companies also goes beyond licensing. UMG will work closely with MedRhythms to provide music data and provide the company with marketing resources as MedRhythms brings the product to consumers. Licensing Universal’s music is not just a luxury so patients can listen to more than public domain music; Harris says the team’s research shows that treatment is much more effective when patients enjoy the music they listen to, and UMG’s comprehensive catalog will make it easy for them.
For UMG, the deal expands on the success the music company has seen in the health and wellness ecosystem on fitness platforms like Peloton and meditation apps like Calm. Bringing music to MedRhythms takes the concept one step further, exploring monetization in the more clinical medical sector.
Business there will likely remain relatively niche compared to other sources of income, given how limited the need for music may be in the medical field in general, but it looks promising. The global digital health market is worth around $ 100 billion and growing rapidly in light of the pandemic, with market research firm Global Industry Analysts forecasting it to reach nearly $ 456 billion over the next five years . The digital therapy market itself is worth around $ 3 billion right now and could grow to around $ 13 billion by 2026 according to another report from MarketsandMarkets. Markets UMG and MedRhythms declined to disclose financial details of their licensing partnership.
“Obviously, it’s not a purely entertainment music market, but what’s interesting to consider whether you’re looking at social, gaming, or health and wellness, these are some really big industries where music is always an interesting game, ”Nash said. . “We want to get into the markets quickly to gain a competitive advantage. So early on in partnerships like MedRhythms, we’re more worried about losing opportunities and not innovating than about making a mistake and providing a license that we could have gotten more money for later on.
Among the dozens of patients MedRhythms has worked with since its founding is Chrissy Bellows, 74, who tested the company’s product after suffering a stroke in 2016 and is now on the MedRhythms Patient Advisory Board. . She was a precocious patient, testing when the trials were more rudimentary; she just walked to the sound of music played on a cell phone. Bellows’ stroke has left her entire right side paralyzed, and she is currently walking with the support of a cane or holding her husband and caregiver Bill, but she is tenacious and determined to walk on her own again.
In the early days of her recovery, Chrissy’s physiotherapist told them that most of her improvement would occur in the first six months, with little more in the following six months. Further progress, the therapist said, would likely stop after the first year. “After that, there is no improvement,” Bill said with a pause in his voice as he held back tears. “I remember the first [time they] made him stand up for what they called ‘walking’, and even 10 feet was a struggle just to stand up.
Yet Chrissy persisted. As she puts it, “I wouldn’t agree to never walk again. It wasn’t in my book.
Using MedRhythms, along with her more typical physical therapy, she has seen improvement steadily. With support, she can walk longer. She can carry on a conversation while walking, whereas at the start of her recovery she had to concentrate entirely on her movements.
She saw a breakthrough via first-hand MedRhythms just before the start of the pandemic. Towards the end of a 30-minute session at MedRhythms, Bellows told Harris and MedRhythms music therapist Brian Costa that she was tired and needed a break. As she walked over to her chair, they abruptly stopped the music and she froze, unable to move any further.
“No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. I was frozen in place, ”says Bellows. “It was a panicky situation, except I was surrounded by all kinds of help. I wasn’t afraid of falling, just that I couldn’t walk. After I finally sat down, the two Brian’s rejoiced, partied, and laughed because they saw it worked. It is an amazing thing to see. Music has taken over what my brain doesn’t do after stroke.
The two were amazed, and since then Chrissy has done more testing with MedRhythms and has become more confident to move forward. Although Bellows notes physical progress, the biggest difference was the impact on her mental health as she became more confident that there was room for her to improve. “I’m getting to the point where I think that one day I’ll be able to walk on my own, which I never thought about before,” says Bellows. There is an improvement, I can tell. I think of the future now, of walking without my cane in the kitchen. I hadn’t thought about it two or three years ago. I know it won’t be tomorrow, but it’s there and it can happen.