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Music has always been used as a therapeutic tool. Many songs help relieve stress and help people cope with situations in daily life. However, it has been treated as a supplement to medicine as opposed to actually being medicine. Former Nokia design chief Marko Ahtisaari, who served in that capacity until Microsoft took over Nokia’s mobile division, was named CEO of The Sync Project, which will investigate the therapeutic effects of music.

“The Sync Project’s mission is to develop music as medicine. We are bringing together the scientists, technologists, clinicians and musicians of the world to accelerate the discovery of the clinical applications of music. We’re building a data platform that maps music characteristics to real time, objective measurements of physiology from a rapidly growing variety of sensors and devices,” Ahtisaari wrote on his company’s blog.

Ahtisaari said that music plays a big part in treating certain conditions. “There are intriguing examples of how music can improve cognition after dementia or a stroke. It can help some with autism break through verbally or socially, or aid patients with Parkinson’s to regulate their gait,” Ahtisaari said. Conventional medicine can still trigger side effects that have a chance to worsen a person’s condition, and music could be an alternative to patients who have not responded well to pharmaceutical drugs.

A common condition that music can help treat is depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 18 percent of Americans (40 million people 18 or older) and can cost Americans $42 billion a year. Depression also disproportionately affects women more than men. Ahtisaari said that music is deeply tied to emotions, which could help mitigate many of the effects of depression and anxiety that people with the conditions face. “Neuroimaging studies have shown that music can activate the brain areas typically associated with emotions: the deep brain structures that are part of the limbic system like the amygdala and the hippocampus as well as the pathways that transmit dopamine (for pleasure associated with music-listening),” he said.

Ahtisaari has put together a team capable of the task. Board members and advisors at The Sync Project include Tristan Jehan, principal scientist at music streaming service Spotify; Robert Zatorre, professor of neuroscience at McGill University; Adam Gazzaley, director of the neuroscience imaging center at the University of California, San Francisco; Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival; Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Daphne Zohar, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of PureTech.

Ahtisaari interviewed Jehan on July 28 for the company blog. Jehan gave some insights into listeners’ likes and dislikes based on the music they listen to. “With the amount data that we collect, we are able to make really interesting predictions about listeners simply from their musical taste,” Jehan said. “For instance, we have been able to predict with a certain reliability whether a listener votes Democrat or Republican or whether someone is interested in sports, in drinking or is a smoker or not,” he continued. While Jehan said that these insights are interesting, it shouldn’t be the ultimate measuring tool. “These experiments are fun and powerful, but correlation does not mean causation,” he warned, saying that further research is necessary.

The Sync Project is seeking partners for the project, specifically calling on scientists, musicians, music companies, device makers, patients, advocacy groups, and anyone with an interest in music as a form of medicine to help push along research and development. “We are at the beginning of our journey, we don’t have all the answers, and we can’t do it alone. To achieve our vision, we created The Sync Project as a global collaboration with some of the most passionate and visionary minds in science, music, health and technology. We need scientists, music lovers, engineers, musicians, patients and patient advocacy groups, everyone, to take part in this ambitious project. Only together can we decode music for health. In time, we hope this can help the lives of millions,” Ahtisaari said.

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