Choir helps Parkinson's patients regain critical skill

Researchers say singing together improves facial mimicry

TORONTO – A new Parkinson's study has participants literally singing its praises.

Often the most noticeable symptoms of Parkinson's disease are tremors and difficulty walking. But the disease also affects the ability to make facial expressions, which can take an emotional toll on patients.

"The face tends to drop down," said Parkinson's patient Frank O'Hara. "So for example, I used to be a good whistler. Can't whistle at all."

Under normal circumstances, humans naturally mimic or mirror each other. Losing the ability to make facial expressions can make people with Parkinson's seem cold and aloof.

A Canadian research project is looking at a unique way to help tackle that problem -- by studying a Toronto choir made up entirely of people with Parkinson's disease.

"There's an automatic route to emotion that they don't have access to because they're not initiating that mirroring or mimicry of other people's emotions," said Frank Russo, a researcher at Ryerson University.

Researchers have found when the choir members sing together, they regain some of their lost ability to mimic expressions. Some have gained even more.

"Now I'm confident -- my voice and smile. Now I look up and I sing," said choir member Bonnie le Lyons-Cohen.

Some members also regained the ability to modulate their voice, and everyone in the choir enjoyed the support they received from each other.

The choir has bolstered researchers' theory that singing, facial expressions and social communication are inter-connected:

"In the act of singing, it might seem like we're focusing only on the sound, but we're focused on practicing the full emotional expression. So expression of the voice, expression of the face," said Russo.

The choir project was actually scheduled to end, but choir members wanted to keep it going, so they held a fundraising concert. They say their goal is to continue for at least a year and make the choir accessible for even more patients with Parkinson's disease.

To learn more about the choir, click here.