Music has long been touted for its abilities to heal, whether it be helping cope with loss or evoking old memories. Now, one ambitious medical startup — with the endorsement of the world’s largest music company — is looking to use music for a much more clinical purpose: teaching people to walk again.
MedRhythms is a Portland, Maine-based medical startup founded in 2015 that combines music and health care technology to help patients with neurological injuries and diseases improve their ability to walk. It’s fast-growing, having closed a $25 million funding round in July, and its tech has gone through trials at major hospitals across the country, including Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General Hospital. Now MedRhythms has closed on another crucial partnership, a licensing deal with Universal Music Group that gives the company’s platform and its patient base access to one of the deepest catalogs in music.
“Everybody can relate to the fact that music evokes emotions and memories, and that’s the social science of music, but what MedRhythms is doing is shifting that paradigm to look at music purely through the lens of neuroscience,” says MedRhythms co-founder and CEO Brian Harris. “Music has a profound impact on our brains, objectively. Regardless of age, culture, ability or disability, almost everybody’s brain responds the same way to music. At a high level, when we as humans are passively listening to music that we like, it engages parts of our brain responsible for movement, language, and attention. There’s no other stimulus on Earth that engages our brain like music does.”
The basis of MedRhythms’ research comes from what’s called auditory motor entrainment, a subconscious link between a person’s auditory and motor systems. The average person displays such a link when they nod their head or tap their foot to the beat of a song. Those with neurological injuries or diseases like strokes or Parkinson’s disease often have a damaged motor system, but because of the link with the auditory system, Harris says, music works as a strong external stimulus to activate the motor system more effectively once again. The process could aid in neuroplasticity, the process that allows our brains to adapt and learn even as we grow older.
During a session, MedRhythms patients hook up sensors to their shoes and listen to music through an app with headphones while the program tracks patients’ gait and lets algorithms change the music according to rhythm. Patients walk to the music, which speeds up or slows down accordingly.
Success through MedRhythms is far from surefire — patients need some level of walkability in the first place, and there’s no guarantee on how effective the therapy is on any one person — but the results so far have been compelling. Patients have seen notable improvement after MedRhythms’ intervention, with Harris seeing the most notable success for stroke victims. One super-responder began seeing significant gait improvement as late as 20 years after suffering a stroke. MedRhythms’ research eventually led to the company’s products earning breakthrough-device status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The partnership MedRhythms has with UMG is unique in the music business. Because the music in MedRhythms’ platform will be used for strictly medical purposes, the two companies had to develop what UMG is calling a first-of-its-kind sort of prescription-music license, one that complies with the FDA.
“At the end of the day, this is essentially a subscription that gets prescribed,” says Michael Nash, UMG’s executive vice president of digital strategy. “It involves our key principles across subscription platforms, but this is far from a usual partnership for us. It’s an experimental era. This is the first time anybody we know of has licensed an FDA-approved prescription-music platform in the U.S., and that’s an important first.”
The two companies’ partnership goes beyond the license, too. UMG will be working closely with MedRhythms to provide music data and will give the company marketing resources as MedRhythms takes the product forward to consumers. Getting a license for Universal’s music isn’t merely a luxury so patients can listen to more than public domain music; according to Harris, the team’s research shows the treatment is far more effective when patients enjoy the music they’re listening to, and UMG’s deep catalog will make that easier.
For UMG, the deal expands on the success the music company has seen from the health-and-wellness ecosystem on fitness platforms like Peloton and meditation apps such as Calm. Bringing music to MedRhythms takes the concept a step further, exploring monetization into the more-clinical medical sector.
Business there will likely remain relatively niche compared with other revenue streams, given how limited the need for music may be in the medical field overall, but it shows promise. The global digital-health market is worth around than $100 billion and growing quickly in light of the pandemic, with market-research company Global Industry Analysts projecting it to be worth nearly $456 billion in the next five years. The digital therapeutics market itself is worth about $3 billion now and could be worth around $13 billion by 2026 according to another report from MarketsandMarkets. Markets UMG and MedRhythms declined to disclose the financial details of their license partnership.
“Obviously, this isn’t a pure-play music market, but what’s interesting to contemplate, whether you’re looking at social, gaming, or health and wellness, these are really large sectors where music is still an interesting play,” Nash says. “We want to jump into markets early to get a competitive advantage. So early into partnerships like MedRhythms, we’re more worried about losing out on opportunities and not innovating than we are about making a mistake and providing a license we could’ve gotten more money for later.”
Among the scores of patients MedRhythms has worked with since its founding is 74-year-old Chrissy Bellows, who has tested the company’s product after suffering a stroke in 2016 and is now on MedRhythms’ patient advisory board. She was an early patient, testing when the trials were more rudimentar; she merely walked to music playing on a cellphone. Bellows’ stroke left her entire right side paralyzed, and she currently walks with the support of a cane or by holding her husband and caregiver Bill, but she’s tenacious and determined to walk again on her own.
In the earliest days of her recovery, Chrissy’s physical therapist told them most of her improvement would come in the first six months, with a bit more in the following six months. Further progress, the therapist said, would probably stop after the first year. “After that, there is no improvement,” Bill says with a break in his voice as he fights back tears. “I remember the first [time they] got her up for what they called ‘walking,’ and even 10 feet was a struggle just to stand up.”
Still, Chrissy persisted. As she says: “I didn’t accept that I’d never walk again. That wasn’t in my book.”
Using MedRhythms, coupled with her more typical physical therapy, she’s steadily seen improvement. With support, she can walk for longer periods. She can hold a conversation while walking, whereas early on in her recovery, she needed to focus entirely on moving.
She experienced a breakthrough via MedRhythms firsthand just before the pandemic started. Toward the end of a 30-minute session at the MedRhythms facility, Bellows told Harris and MedRhythms music therapist Brian Costa that she was tired and needed to break. As she walked toward her chair, they abruptly stopped the music and she froze, unable to move any further.
“No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. I was frozen in place,” Bellows says. “It was a panicky situation except I was surrounded by all sorts of help. I wasn’t scared of falling, just that I couldn’t walk. After I eventually sat down, the two Brians were high-fiving, celebrating and laughing because they saw it worked. It’s an amazing thing to see. The music took over what my brain doesn’t do anymore after the stroke.”
The two were astonished, and since then, Chrissy has done more tests with MedRhythms and become more confident in moving forward. While Bellows notes physical progress, the bigger difference has been the impact on her mental health as she’s grown more confident that there’s room for her to get better. “I’m getting to the point now that I think eventually I’ll be able to walk on my own, which is something I never thought of before,” Bellows says. There is improvement, I feel it. I’m thinking ahead now, about walking without my cane in the kitchen. I didn’t think of that two or three years ago. I know it won’t be tomorrow, but it’s there, and it can happen.”