Want your medicines to be more effective? Research suggests that turning up your favorite song while popping the pills may be of help soon.

While previous studies have used music-listening interventions as a tool to treat pain and anxiety, a team from Michigan State University in the US took a novel approach by studying the effects of music-listening interventions on chemotherapy-induced nausea.

“Music-listening interventions are like over-the-counter medications,” said Jason Kiernan, Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing. “You don’t need a doctor to prescribe them.”

“Pain and anxiety are both neurological phenomena and are interpreted in the brain as a state. Chemotherapy-induced nausea is not a stomach condition; it is a neurological one,” Kiernan said.

The small pilot study, published in the journal Clinical Nursing Research, included 12 patients undergoing chemotherapy treatment who agreed to listen to their favorite music for 30 minutes each time they needed to take their as-needed anti-nausea medication.

They repeated the music intervention anytime nausea occurred over the five days beyond their chemotherapy treatment. The patients in the study provided a total of 64 events.

“When we listen to music, our brains fire all kinds of neurons,” Kiernan said.

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While Kiernan did see a reduction in the ratings of patients’ nausea severity and their distress (how much it bothered them to be nauseous), he cautions that it is difficult to isolate whether it was the gradual release of the medication doing its job or the increased benefit of the music.

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He aims to do further research on this based on a previously published study that showed an increase in the amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter — released by platelets in the blood — after listening to unpleasant and pleasant music.

“Serotonin is the major neurotransmitter that causes chemotherapy-induced nausea. Cancer patients take medications to block serotonin’s effects,” Kiernan said.

Researchers found that patients who listened to pleasant music experienced the lowest levels of serotonin release, indicating that the serotonin stayed in the blood platelets and was not released to circulate throughout the body. Results also showed that after listening to music they found unpleasant, patients experienced greater stress and increased levels of serotonin release.

“This was intriguing because it provides a neurochemical explanation and a possible way to measure serotonin and the blood platelet release of serotonin in my study,” Kiernan said.

“In 10 to 20 years, wouldn’t it be neat if you could use a nonpharmacological intervention like listening to 10 minutes of your favorite music to complement a medicine?”