Mozart’s masterpieces could aid battle against cancer

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Mozart’s masterpieces could aid battle against cancer

Listening to the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may help doctors find precancerous growths, according to a pilot study by UTHealth researchers Catherine Noelle O’Shea, D.O., and David Wolf, M.D.

HOUSTON - (Nov. 29, 2011) - Some parents have used classical music in an effort to enhance child development. A supermarket chain used compositions to try to reduce loitering outside stores. And, now doctors at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School think the melodies may help them combat cancer.

When the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was played in surgical suites, gastroenterologists searching for growths linked to colon cancer were more likely to find them, according to a pilot study by doctors with the UTHealth Medical School and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cancer killer in the United States. Screening for colon cancer is particularly important because it can develop without symptoms.

“While results are preliminary, we did find a link between music listening and the detection of precancerous polyps during colonoscopies,” said Catherine Noelle O’Shea, D.O., the UTHealth gastroenterology fellow who led the project.

Findings of the study, “The ‘Mozart Effect’ and Adenoma Detection,” were presented at the American College of Gastroenterology’s (ACG) 76th Annual Scientific meeting in Washington, D.C. O’Shea was assisted by her mentor, David Wolf, M.D., associate director of the school’s Gastroenterology Fellowship Program.

O’Shea said she selected the music of Mozart because of research suggesting that listening may result in significant short-term improvement in three-dimensional reasoning. This is called the Mozart Effect.

To find out if listening to Mozart could enhance colonoscopies, the researchers devised a test involving experienced doctors and their ability to detect adenomas, a type of polyp that is a true precursor to invasive colon cancer.

Wolf and another experienced gastroenterologist participated in the study. They normally detect at least one adenoma in 21 to 27 percent of their patients. The test determined their detection rates when the music was on and when it was off.

Wolf was aware of the study and his detection rate was 38 percent with the music on and 41 percent with it off. The other doctor who was blinded to outcome had an adenoma detection rate of 67 percent with the music compared to 30 percent without.

Anthony Brandt, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University who studies the interaction of music and the mind, believes classical music does enhance concentration but he is not sold on the Mozart Effect.

Brandt, a Harvard University-trained composer, said classical music is more complicated and less cyclical than popular music and consequently requires more attention. 

“Classical music by the great composers such as Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok is a virtual encyclopedia of ways of holding your attention: The music asks for you to stay present and rewards you for not tuning out,” Brandt said.

He added, “I can imagine that classical music in the operating room may complement, rather than compete with, the mental resources needed to execute a complex surgical procedure while also enhancing a doctor's concentration, alertness and ability to stay ‘in the moment.’ ”

Is there anything special about Mozart when it comes to concentration? Brandt believes works by other classical composers would likely produce the same results.

Wolf and O’Shea used compositions downloaded from a Mozart CD onto an iPod. Those selections included the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Rondo-Allegro from Eine kleine Nachtmusik performed by the Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra.

“Our next step will involve more physicians, more colonoscopies and the possible addition of different music types, but still with an arm with Mozart,” Wolf said.

Rob Cahill
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