Dr. Alex Pantelyat, found and co-director of the Center for Music and Medicine, talks about his mission with the project. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
For his fourth-grade science project, Alex Pantelyat compared the effects of classical and rock music on plants.
Mozart, he recalled, helped the leaves flourish. Led Zeppelin caused wilting.
He never figured out why, but 25 years later, Pantelyat, remains fascinated by the relationship between music and health, and the worlds of music and medicine stand to benefit.
Pantelyat, 34, a Johns Hopkins University neurologist (and, not so incidentally, an accomplished violinist) is a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Music & Medicine, an emerging collaboration between the Johns Hopkins medical community and the Peabody Institute.
The mission, he said, is to combine the expertise of faculty members in both camps toward a pair of ends: integrating music and rhythm into medical care and improving the health of musicians worldwide.
More than 80 Johns Hopkins faculty members across dozens of disciplines have affiliated themselves with the center, the first of its kind in the eastern United States.
To Pantelyat, the time is ripe for such a collaboration, and Hopkins is just the place to get it up and running.
"Starting up a multipart, multidisciplinary program like this is very much a matter of timing and opportunity," said Pantelyat, who also founded and directs the Johns Hopkins Atypical Parkinsonism Center. "There's a tremendous amount of interest in this field."
Human beings have pondered the connection between music and health for millennia, at least as far back as Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician/philosopher who studied harmonics and how they might affect healing.
Physicians and musicians began wondering in the early 20th century how music might help cure specific illnesses. The questions went mainstream after World War II, when Veterans Administration hospitals recruited thousands of musicians to play for wounded veterans.
The 1940s and 1950s saw the appearance of music therapy associations, and the field expanded over the next three decades as licensing boards came into being and thousands of people became therapists.
It wasn't until the last two decades that researchers began training the increasingly sophisticated tools of science — electroencephalography, brain-imaging technology and more — on music therapy, investigating how and why music seemed to help reduce the effects of stroke, epilepsy, autism, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and other disorders.
In 2008, Finnish scientists showed that stroke victims who listened to music they loved recovered mental function more quickly than non-listeners. In 2011, University of Utah researchers showed the same activity could reduce pain during medical procedures.
And in 2015, an Ohio State University study showed that the brain waves of epilepsy sufferers synchronized strongly with music.
Pantelyat contributed to the field when, as a fellow in the movement disorders center at the University of Pennsylvania, he ran a six-week pilot study showing that Parkinson's patients taking part in regular West African drumming sessions saw measurable improvement in mood, coordination and mental acuity.
When he came to Johns Hopkins in 2014, he encountered a community already primed to explore the music/medicine link.
Peabody Dean Fred Bronstein had just issued a five-point strategic plan that included a directive to spread the study of music across disciplines at Hopkins.
Serap Bastepe-Gray, a classical guitarist-instructor with a medical degree from Turkey, had long helped instrumentalists at Peabody devise methods for recovering from playing-related injuries to the hands, shoulders and elbows.
And Bronstein soon hired Sarah Hoover, a vocalist and former voice teacher, to the newly created position of special assistant for innovation and interdisciplinary partnerships.
She already had worked in the field of voice wellness and served on a national panel seeking to develop standards for training musicians in a healthful way.
The Center for Music & Medicine was up and running by mid-2015 with Bastepe-Gray and Hoover as Pantelyat's co-directors.
In one of its earliest projects, Pantelyat directed a study on how choral singing can affect symptoms of Parkinson's, a neurological disorder whose most common effects include tremors, poor balance, a weakened voice and slurred speech.
He divided 32 participants into two groups, one that featured weekly group singing under the direction of Peabody-trained choral conductor Leo Wanenchak, the other a book discussion.
Starting out with baseline tests that measured mood, memory, sound pressure levels, voice jitter and more, Pantelyat gathered more than 2,500 data points over a 30-week span in 2015 and 2016.
He's still finalizing the numbers for publication, and Wanenchak is loath to reflect on the medical progress of his singers, a group that included individuals at a variety of stages in their Parksonism and presenting a broad range of symptoms.
He does report, though, that the group has been one of the most engaged and committed he has ever worked with, and the mood at rehearsals was so uplifting that the group — known as the ParkinSonics — decided to continue meeting regularly.
The had their first concert on May 5, a performance at Within Our Reach, a University of Maryland Medical Center symposium aimed at "recognizing the importance of engaging patients and family members in an active process to learn the new skills necessary to manage their chronic medical condition."
"From a musical point of view, we are now making a beautiful sound as a chorus. We're blending together, singing in time together. And the majority of the people in the chorus have never sung before in their lives," Wanenchak said.
The center also has sent two Peabody performance students, classical guitarist Julien Xuereb and harpist Peggy Houng, to local senior centers to serve as artists-in-residence, and it's monitoring the effects on residents' quality of life.
Hoover and Bastepe-Gray, meanwhile, are spearheading efforts to develop a clinical and research center for musician injuries, whether it's the blister-like nodules many singers develop or the carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendinitis and other maladies that plague instrumentalists.
Studies show that more than 60 percent of professional musicians suffer disabling injuries during their careers, and many view being sidelined as such a stigma that they keep their pains to themselves.
Hoover said the Center for Music & Medicine plans a soft launch for an occupational health clinic for musicians and dancers at Peabody this summer, a hard one in the fall.
The center lacks a brick-and-mortar headquarters, and in the absence of a endowment, officals still are seeking funding on a project-by-project basis.
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Pantelyat said it will be necessary to raise millions for the project to reach its full potential, but he's optimistic, given the collaborative atmosphere at Hopkins and the intensity of interest so far.
He estimated that 80 percent of the physicans involved are serious amateur musicians, as he is.
In time, they might even figure out why rock music harms plants.
"We know a lot more about all this than we did ten to fifteen years ago," he said, "but there's still a great deal to unearth."