Can music remedy sleep problems?

26. January 2018

In mid-January, Kira Vibe Jespersen defended her Ph.D. thesis at the Center for Music in the Brain. The thesis examined whether music could be a tool for improving sleep quality for people suffering from sleep problems. In the future, Jespersen will continue her work at the Center for Music in the Brain as a post-doc.

Sleep problems are one of the most common health problems in our modern society and are associated with reduced quality of life and many physical and psychiatric disorders. Therefore, there is a great need to identify efficient methods to improve sleep quality. On January 16, Kira Vibe Jespersen defended her Ph.D. thesis “Music for Insomnia” at the DNRF’s Center for Music in the Brain at Aarhus University.

The thesis examines whether music can be an effective tool for improving sleep quality. In her research, Jespersen first systematically reviewed existing studies in the field. It turned out that such research was surprisingly scarce, although music has a long history of being used therapeutically and of having a calming effect in connection with sleep.

“We only identified six studies in the field, five of which were based on how people with sleep problems themselves perceived the effect of music,” said Jespersen. “There is basically no research in the field based on objective measurements in relation to sleep. In addition, the sleep problems were generally very poorly described, but the results indicated that music has a positive effect on sleep.”

People with insomnia feel a difference

In continuation of the review, Jespersen primarily focused on a study that looked into the effects of music on patients diagnosed with insomnia, also known as sleeplessness. Insomnia causes not only poor sleep but also reduced functioning during the day. Jespersen studied the effects of listening to music at bedtime compared with listening to audio books.

“We did not see a major effect in our main analysis or in our objective measurements of sleep quality, so it cannot be concluded that music is an effective treatment of insomnia,” Jespersen explained. “But as the test subjects had suffered from sleep problems for up to 30 years, it is also not surprising that a few weeks of listening to music at bedtime did not cure their insomnia. 

“What we did see were minor effects on some subjective parameters, the test subjects’ own perceived experiences. The group who listened to music at bedtime experienced improved quality of life, which was not the case for the group who listened to audio books. Because insomnia is a diagnosis based on the patient’s own experience of sleep, it is actually very important that the patients themselves experience an effect in terms of better sleep quality and better well-being.”

Finally, her thesis examined whether patients with insomnia had structural changes in the brain compared to a control group who usually sleep well at night.

“We saw that people with insomnia had network disturbances in brain areas which involve our emotions and in areas that affect our inner sensing, that is, to feel their own body,” said Jespersen.

Further studies are required to determine whether patients with insomnia are predisposed to these changes in the brain or if insomnia causes the changes.

Head of center: Jespersen is a major research talent

Jespersen expects to continue working at the Center for Music in the Brain as a post-doc, and she is looking forward to working on a study that focuses on whether music can lead to new sleep treatments for patients with dementia.

The head of the Center for Music in the Brain, brain scientist Peter Vuust, was Jespersen’s Ph.D. supervisor and he is proud of her effort and impressed by her defense.

“Her thesis is the first which systematically and thoroughly examines music in relation to sleep quality,” said Vuust. “It is important with studies like this to chart the effect of music in different health treatments. It may seem harmless to use music in healthcare, even though it does not have a measurable positive effect, but the problem is that such initiatives cost resources and can lead to false hopes that may shift focus away from more relevant treatment options.”

Professor Vuust is now looking forward to continuing the collaboration with Jespersen at the Center for Music in the Brain.

“Kira is a major research talent and has what it takes to become a skilled researcher. She is incredibly trustworthy and is characterized by having a fantastic serenity in her research approach, which can be difficult to maintain as a Ph.D. student,” Vuust concluded.