The Well-Tempered Neurologist

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Photo of Alexander Y. Pantelyat with his violin

Alexander Pantelyat on the medical side of music.

Around the time he started playing the violin, Alexander Y. Pantelyat C’04 carried out a project for a fourth-grade science fair: he took three identical plants and subjected one to silence, one to classical music, and one to rock music. “After several weeks, the one exposed to rock wilted, the one exposed to silence grew as expected, and the one exposed to classical music grew taller than the one exposed to silence,” he recalls.

Whatever Pantelyat’s grade-school foray into experimental science may have lacked in the way of randomization or double-blinding, it crystallized a nascent curiosity about the power of music. 

Many years later, during a neurology fellowship in movement disorders, Pantelyat witnessed a more intriguing effect music seemed to have. He attended a West African drumming session in which Parkinson’s disease patients followed the rhythmic lead of an instructor. Afterward, Pantelyat heard the patients say they saw an improvement in their symptoms. This inspired him to conduct a six-week pilot study involving 10 Parkinson’s patients who took drumming lessons twice a week. At the conclusion, the patients reported an increase in mobility and greater quality of life compared to a control group. His paper on the study, published in the online journal Movement Disorders Clinical Practice, bore the title “DRUM-PD: The Use of a Drum Circle to Improve the Symptoms and Signs of Parkinson’s Disease.”

Pantelyat, who is now an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, cofounded its Center for Music and Medicine in 2015. It is the culmination of a life full of rhythm, melody, and patient care.

Pantelyat started playing the violin at age seven in Kiev, Ukraine, and moved to Philadelphia two years later. He attended the Settlement Music School, and later played with the Penn Symphony Orchestra, which toured China in 2001. Pantelyat also founded a string quartet with other undergraduates. He still plays the violin, primarily for his two young children, and he has performed for patients at the Center for Music and Medicine.

Many professors at Penn made an impression on him, says Pantelyat, but “Helen Davies [Gr’60] clearly stands out.” She “taught the honors course on Infectious Diseases, and her way to help students remember the material was to write songs about it to [the melodies of] familiar songs,” Pantelyat fondly remembers. “To this day, I can recite detailed treatment regimens for leprosy and different types of antibiotics and what they treat, thanks to Dr. Davies’s writing lyrics about it to familiar tunes, such as ‘She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain’ and ‘Yesterday.’” (Davies, 95, still works full-time at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, where she is the academic coordinator for the Department of Microbiology.)

Pantelyat’s mother is a neurologist and his grandmothers were doctors in the Soviet Union. Medicine and music tugged at him for a career path, but by his junior year in high school, medicine won out. He received a Trustee Scholarship at Penn, which covered tuition, and double majored in Biological Basis of Behavior and the Russian language. One of his two minors was music history.

While music and medicine were important facets of his life, it wasn’t until a job interview that he got the idea the two could be combined. When Justin McArthur, the neurology department chair at Johns Hopkins, asked him in late 2013 what Pantelyat’s ideal position would look like, “I answered, ‘A combination of my passion for music and medicine.’ He was extremely supportive and continues to be.”

There is growing literature on the health benefits of music, to which Pantelyat has contributed.

“In my studies thus far, I have focused on Parkinson’s disease and demonstrated that group West African drumming can improve quality of life, that group singing can improve objective voice outcomes—such as speech loudness and mood—and that group guitar lessons can improve mood and reduce anxiety,” he says. “In the aftermath of each of these studies, I have sought to create a community-based opportunity for study participants and other patients to get involved in the music-based activity, and I’m proud to say that we have a weekly ‘ParkinSonics’ singing group in Baltimore, and subsidize group guitar lessons offered to people with Parkinson’s disease.”

As codirector of the center, he also keeps on top of other findings. Music, he says, has been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety in a number of medical settings, such as surgery. It can help people with stroke or other brain injuries regain speech through Melodic Intonation Therapy (MIT), a type of speech therapy that uses melodic and rhythmic components to assist in speech recovery. Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS), an application of pulsed rhythmic or musical stimulation that aims to improve gait or gait-related aspects of movement can help people with stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease improve their walking and balance (and potentially reduce falls). Music has also been shown to help children with autism improve behavior and socialize.

“With MIT, they start out with a familiar song—as familiarity is key—like ‘Happy Birthday,’ that the patient rhythmically taps to, and over time strip the melodic components away, doing sing-speak, then just speaking,” Pantelyat explains. “For RAS, traditionally no melody is involved, just a metronome beat that is adjusted to the patient’s walking pace. However, more recent studies have suggested that walking to a familiar song that a patient enjoys may be even more beneficial than just a metronome beat.”

While music has shown benefits, it probably depends on the type being played. Someone who doesn’t like jazz, for instance, is unlikely to respond positively to an Art Tatum trio, but might cotton on to classical music instead. (Or perhaps—the delicacy of certain houseplants notwithstanding—rock ‘n’ roll.)

“Key unanswered questions include what is the right dose of music, how long do the benefits last, and how to best tailor the music to the specific patient. More studies are needed on this,” Pantelyat says.

“To me,” he adds, “music means respite, healing, universal language, mutual understanding, and a way of living joyously.”

—Jon Caroulis

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