Listening to vocal music has been recently shown to improve language recovery in stroke survivors. The neuroplasticity mechanisms supporting this effect are, however, still unknown. Using data from a three-arm single-blind randomized controlled trial including acute stroke patients (N=38) and a 3-month follow-up, we set out to compare the neuroplasticity effects of daily listening to self-selected vocal music, instrumental music, and audiobooks on both brain activity and structural connectivity of the language network. Using deterministic tractography we show that the 3-month intervention induced an enhancement of the microstructural properties of the left frontal aslant tract (FAT) for the vocal music group as compared to the audiobook group. Importantly, this increase in the strength of the structural connectivity of the left FAT correlated with improved language skills. Analyses of stimulus-specific activation changes showed that the vocal music group exhibited increased activations in the frontal termination points of the left FAT during vocal music listening as compared to the audiobook group from acute to 3-month post-stroke stage. The increased activity correlated with the structural neuroplasticity changes in the left FAT. These results suggest that the beneficial effects of vocal music listening on post-stroke language recovery are underpinned by structural neuroplasticity changes within the language network and extend our understanding of music-based interventions in stroke rehabilitation. Significance statementPost-stroke language deficits have a devastating effect on patients and their families. Current treatments yield highly variable outcomes and the evidence for their long-term effects is limited. Patients often receive insufficient treatment that are predominantly given outside the optimal time window for brain plasticity. Post-stroke vocal music listening improves language outcome which is underpinned by neuroplasticity changes within the language network. Vocal music listening provides a complementary rehabilitation strategy which could be safely implemented in the early stages of stroke rehabilitation and seems to specifically target language symptoms and recovering language network.
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