Boosting brainpower at the barre

Several people seated in a dance studio raise their arms and lift their chins toward the ceiling.

Boosting brainpower at the barre

Researchers are learning how the unique combination of music and movement provided by learning dance can improve both the mental and physical health of Parkinson’s patients
January 15, 2018

Rachel Bar was helping with a dance class for people with Parkinson’s disease at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) in Toronto, when one of the participants told her the class had made a big difference for him.

“We’d been working on a dance for a long time and he described how he had been having a really off day,” Bar says.

The dance student often experienced freezing — a temporary inability to move, which is seen in some people with Parkinson’s.

“He said, ‘as soon as I heard the music I just started to dance!’ The dance was freedom from his frozen state.” It was a moment of validation for Bar, who since her undergrad years has been researching the positive effects of dance on people with Parkinson’s. After Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder, affecting tens of thousands of Canadians each year.

A former classical ballet dancer, Bar continues this work by coordinating dance classes for people with Parkinson’s at NBS. The program helps people with Parkinson’s take advantage of the psychological and physical benefits of dance to improve motor skills and brain activity.

From grades six to 12, Bar trained at NBS and soon after graduation was picked up by the English National Ballet. She danced with the company for four years and then for two years with the Israel Ballet, based in Tel-Aviv.

Although dance is her first love, Bar says she always knew she wanted to pursue academic research.

“I felt like I had more to say than I was going to be able to say on the stage,” she says.

While studying psychology during her undergrad at York University, Bar pitched a research idea to Joseph DeSouza, who taught her third-year neuroscience.

She wanted to know what happened in a dancer’s brain while they learned and performed choreography.

Bar and DeSouza recruited apprentices from the National Ballet of Canada. Over a period of eight months they monitored the changes in the dancers’ brain activity using CFI-funded functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology. The fMRI allowed them to assess blood flow to the brain while dancers learned a new piece of choreography.

“I don’t think most undergrad thesis students get to develop their own research questions, which involve sophisticated technology like fMRI. That opportunity I really owe to Joe. That got me hooked.”

Together, Bar and DeSouza found there was a clear learning curve for dancers — brain activity increased up to the eighth or ninth week while a dancer was learning choreography. It levelled out after that and by the eighth month of rehearsal they found a decrease in activity in certain areas of the brain.

“As you would expect, the brain is quite efficient. If you rehearse something more, it’s less load for certain parts of the brain,” Bar says.

That initial study with DeSouza led Bar to an interest in the effects of dance on people with movement disorders, like Parkinson’s.

“Because of that study in my undergrad, that’s what led us to initiate the Dance for Parkinson’s program at NBS. It’s hard to know what would’ve happened if that hadn’t happened.”

Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that occurs most commonly in adults 50 years and older. It affects a person’s ability to move and often causes tremors, freezing and problems with gait and balance. Parkinson’s patients might also experience symptoms unrelated to movement like cognitive impairment, depression or anxiety.

Bar says dance is an ideal activity for people with Parkinson’s because learning choreography is an exercise that forces you to connect brain and body.

“There’s this theory that it’s one activity where you can really get the most bang for your buck,” she says. “Along with physical exercise, there’s a creative, cognitive and social component to it.”

Bar is now pursuing her PhD at Ryerson University. Part of her studies include putting on information sessions at hospitals and research institutions across Canada to help health professionals understand the importance of arts-based programs in managing disease.

“I think the arts have a lot to contribute to health and I am hoping that my research can help other people understand that,” she says.

Written and directed by Karen Suzuki, produced by Suzy Choueiri with a grant awarded by bravoFACT, a Division of Bell Media Inc.