How music is helping Rep. Giffords recover

A year after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson, neurologists are learning from her how music can help trauma victims regain speech.
CBS News

Sunday will mark one year since a gunman in Tucson turned a political event into a massacre. Six people were killed and 13 were wounded, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. CBS News Correspondent Ben Tracy looks into what doctors have learned from her remarkable recovery.

Gabrielle Giffords' husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, said he fell in love with Gabrielle Giffords in part because of how much she talked.

"With a name like Gabby, you're kind of stuck with that role," he said.

"Was there a moment where you thought she may never talk again?" Tracy asked.

Complete coverage: Tragedy in Tucson

"Yeah, absolutely," said Kelly. "I mean, right in the beginning, her trauma surgeon said, 'Who knows how long she'll be in a coma. That could last forever.'"

But less than a month after a bullet tore through the entire left side of her brain, Giffords could say simple words like "toast."

And in November she sent this audio message to her constituents: "Hello, this is Gabby Giffords. I'm getting stronger. I'm getting better."

Audio message posted by Rep. Giffords to constituents on Nov. 15, 2011
A Message from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by RepGiffords

Giffords still struggles to speak in sentences, but she has much less trouble singing. An important part of her therapy now involves singing songs she knew before the shooting.

The ability to speak is mainly controlled by two areas on the left side of the brain. But when we sing or listen to music, wide swaths of both sides of the brain become active. Doctors have learned putting words to melody stimulates memory and helps a damaged brain recover the ability to process language.

"And the idea is that can maybe be used as a proxy or as an alternative," said Dr. Michael Lemole, who was Giffords' neurosurgeon. "Just take away the music part and all of a sudden now you're stringing words together in a sentence.

Lemole said that doctors used to think that the brains of young children could repair themselves.

"The ability of the brain to sort of re-work itself does get more limited as you get older. But that old adage that the brain is pretty much unable to fix itself in adults -- we're re-thinking that."

From an audio recording, Giffords had said: "I will speak better. I want to get back to work." She defied long odds by surviving her attack. Now she's showing what's possible for a wounded mind.

Earlier, Tracy had mentioned about the brain's "singing center." Research has found that it is overdeveloped in professional singers. That may explain why some of us sing opera and why others can't carry a tune.

  • Ben Tracy
    Ben Tracy On Twitter»

    Ben Tracy is a CBS News senior national and environmental correspondent based in Washington, D.C.