Unique center uses music to treat multiple sclerosis

The Grabski Center’s therapy program helps the wheelchair bound ‘sing their song’

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Students at the Grabski Center (Courtesy)
Students at the Grabski Center (Courtesy)

A treatment center for patients with degenerative motor neuron diseases in northern Israel is using technology to provide music therapy for its residents. The program, the first of its kind anywhere, enables the residents to play music, even though some can hardly move a finger.

“The feeling the patients get from playing music is extraordinary,” said Eitan Lewis of Thalamus RDM, a research and design team which created the program with the Grabski Multiple Sclerosis Center in the northern Israeli town of Migdal Haemek. “What this symbolizes is there are no limits,” Lewis said.

The program uses existing technologies that are very sensitive to slight movements, like biofeedback and projection mapping, to allow residents with limited mobility to compose and play music.

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a progressive degenerative disease that gradually limits the patients’ ability to move. The cause of the disease is unknown and there is currently no cure. The Grabski Center, which is sponsored by the charity organization Colel Chabad, hopes to improve quality of life for residents with its programs, which include psychotherapy, physiotherapy, art and ceramics. There are currently 40 residents living in the facility.

The center’s new director, Kobi Visel, decided about six months ago to add a music room with guitars, drums and other instruments to the center’s programs. Dor Azriel, the CEO of Thalamus, heard about the program and got in touch with Visel. He visited the center and asked the residents how many of them could hold a guitar. Only two were able to.

Kobi Visel (Courtesy)
Kobi Visel (Courtesy)

MS incapacitates patients gradually, so the residents have different levels of ability, but 90 percent are able to perform no more than short, horizontal wrist movements. The challenge was allowing people with a range of abilities to each play music with whatever movements they could make.

“We want everyone to be able to play music even if they can’t use a finger,” Azriel said.

Azriel is a native of Dimona, and he has been involved with electronic music since he was eight years old; among other things, he worked with music and sound for Army Radio during his military service. His company specializes in developing therapies using music, with technology making the music accessible to those who are physically challenged. After discussions, Azriel and center officials decided to adapt existing tools the company had previously developed for the project. Later, physics and biology students from the Technion also got involved in the project.

“We didn’t expect to do something special, just to buy some instruments,” Visel said. “But things ended up much differently. There isn’t a music room like this in the world.”

The music room includes eight stations which can be used simultaneously by patients, while standing or sitting in a wheelchair. Colored, motion sensitive lights are beamed down from the ceiling. There are screens behind each station, along with bongo drums, guitars and a Yamaha keyboard in a corner. Sensors measure the movements of participants, who can choose which instruments’ sounds they want to hear with an app. Different movements make different sounds; a wave of an arm, for example, can sound like the strumming of a guitar.

The room gives residents an opportunity to exercise, even if all they do is lift their fingers. The program helps them do movements they are usually not used to, like shoulder exercises.

Oded Stern (Courtesy)
Oded Stern (Courtesy)

More important is the music’s therapeutic value, say residents. “I love music. I have played since a young age,” said Oded Stern, who has lived at the center for about two and a half years and used to play the piano. “Because we have this room I don’t think about my sickness.”

Stern stresses that the room is accessible to residents who do not have a musical background. “We want people who don’t know music, to make that connection,” Stern said. “Things can be complicated, we wanted to make them simple.”

The program’s organizers hope to expand in the future, and there are already plans to open a similar music room in Jerusalem. “There’s no end, the room will continue to develop,” Visel said. “We see it as something that’s just beginning.”

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