Non-COVID research in the midst of a pandemic: Lessons from music and neuroscience

Published by International Association for Music and Medicine on

Written by Karen M. Johnston, MD, Ph.D, Neurosurgery

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound influence on the science of virology, epidemiology and vaccine development among other areas of research. On the flip side, other research has stalled, labs waiting empty and grant funding demolished. 

In April 2020 an online academic gathering was convened to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on neuroscience and music clinical research protocols. 

Now a year into the pandemic many of these impacts are ongoing and the highlighted challenges continue.  For this reason the results of the gathering are of interest and value to IAMM and to the wider research demographic. In a review published in Frontiers in Psychology (1) of that meeting Papatzikis et al discuss the concerns presented and illuminate some of the challenges. 

This paper “Mitigating the impact of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic on neuroscience and music research protocols in clinical populations” represents a multidisciplinary, multicentred effort to summarize the discussion.

The authors (some of whom were also the expert panel for the online meeting) begin by acknowledging the unprecedented impact of the pandemic with particular concerns for health research. Many studies have been stopped or altered. The goal of the gathering was therefore to review and address the problems faced by the researchers and help to identify helpful approaches.

The gathering took place April 15, 2020-nearly a year ago but early on in the pandemic. Taking place using the Webex platform, the international discussion panel consisted of 5 clinical researchers from Finland, USA, Spain, and UAE. Forty-one countries were represented by the 392 online participants. A live poll was included. Thirty-five percent of those who responded to the polls were involved in music and neuroscience research. Six themes of concern emerged from this discussion:

  1. Factors directly affecting protocols. These include changes in study timelines, adapting to these changes and loss of control over study variables. Some of these factors are mandated by government (essential vs non-essential activity) and others imposed by the need to convert to virtual and remote activity with superimposed technological challenges. Many neuroscience and music therapy interventions are complex and interactive and occur in vulnerable populations whose isolation, limited mobility and economics became issues of concern more than ever.
  1. Factors directly affecting the sample. Decreased participation of study subjects is a consequence especially due to travel restrictions, mobility and restrictions on size of gatherings. For those who drop out there is much difficulty in recruiting new subjects for the same reasons. The authors point out this is particularly relevant for many of the rehabilitation study protocols.
  1. Factors due to the setting. Many of these studies take place in a clinical setting (NICU, rehabilitation units, care homes) but restrictions  to “essential work” have been in place in such settings. The authors point out how ironic it is that those settings are also the places where “music therapy would be a most valuable tool.” In addition, access to hospital imaging and equipment has become limited and diverted to COVID patient care.
  1. Interfering research variables. Study design may be impacted by uncontrollable superimposed variables such as mood, quality of life,  cognitive stressors, and economic crisis. The authors are concerned such variables may mask any intervention effects.
  1. Resources. The authors identify that resources, including research funding especially in a time of such economic crisis, are being redirected to pandemic needs. They highlight the important need to identify and persuade funders of the value of their own research protocols. They acknowledge however there are some potential benefits to web based and longer term studies and exploiting the ability to tap into the global community of music, music therapy, and neuroscience for new research opportunities.
  1. Response to limitations.  All of these limitations put pressure on researchers’ careers and productivity. This is likely more pronounced if it is early on in their career although it can be an opportunity for fostering resilience, getting ahead of the learning curve, and embracing technology.

The authors conclude by acknowledging an awareness that projects have been deeply affected and promote communication of these concerns between scientists and their clinical partners. They promote efforts to use research time to focus on literature review, data analysis, reading, writing and consolidation. 

Redirecting efforts to look at what the pandemic has done to populations (quarantine, isolation, elderly, frontline workers) and what music therapy has to offer in such circumstances is important. 

Finally, the authors encourage the neuroscience and music research community to be patient and open, respectful and proactive as we move forward together.

1. Papatzikis E, Zeba F, Sarkamo T, Ramirez R, Grau-Sanchez J, Tervaniemi M, Loewy J. Mitigating the impact of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic on neuroscience and music research protocols in clinical populations. Frontiers in Psychology 2020;11: 1-6.

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