SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) — What do the Grateful Dead, a Bay Area film director and cutting edge brain research all have in common? They’re at the center of a feature film opening Friday March 18th that takes an intriguing look at the healing powers of music.

In the feature film “The Music Never Stopped,” a father takes his son Gabriel to see the Grateful Dead.

The Dead is Gabriel’s favorite band, yet at the concert, he can’t recognize the song “Touch of Grey,” one the band’s smash hits.

That’s because Gabriel, who ran away from home years ago, resurfaced with a devastating disease.

“The parents get a call 20 years later, he’s been found and diagnosed with a brain tumor, it’s been removed and he loses all his short term memory,” said Jim Kohlberg, the film’s director.

The brain damage is extensive. Gabriel is nearly catatonic, until he hears the music of his childhood – Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles – and awakens , vibrant, articulate, describing the music he loves in elaborate ways to his shocked, amazed father, The music reaches Gabriel’s brain in ways no other therapy does.

But this movie is not just a drama: the film is based on a true life story that grabbed the attention of Kohlberg.

“I just developed this interest in what may be the last unchartered territory which ironically it’s not the cosmos. It’s inside our brains,” Kohlberg said.

The idea that music can heal a broken brain is not lost on percussionist Mickey Hart, one time member of the Dead. He knows first hand how powerful music can be.

Hart recalled, “My grandmother in the 70s had Alzheimer’s and she didn’t speak for about a year. And this is where I fell on it. I played the drum for her and she said my name and I was like ‘Wow Grandma!’ And she went, and said my name, I said ‘My God this is amazing.’”

But music therapy is not just for helping patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. It helps with patients who are depressed or are finding it hard to communicate or who are in such terrible pain.

“It can sometimes get into a person where words somehow can’t,” said music therapist Beth Longwell of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Longwell often does one-on-one therapy, including some work with 85-year-old Bob Chamberjian.

Chamberjian has been hospitalized for two years with a wound that won’t heal. He loves the therapy, and sees a big benefit.

“It takes my mind off my foot and my body and it makes everything wonderful”, said Chamberjian.

How music helps with the brain is not clearly understood.

UCSF cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Julene Johnson said with stroke patients, music may help recruit other parts of the brain to take over.

Johnson said, “If you have a large stroke that affects the left area of the brain that’s involved in speaking and is damaged, melodic intonation therapy may help recruit language on the right side.” Johnson also said music therapy also helps with how we age.

As for Hart, he’s actually done music therapy with a variety of patients. His theory? It’s the beat

“We are embedded in a world of rhythms, vibrations” said Hart, adding how music “brings back memories, it brings back times, and places especially for people in the darkness, who have lost that connection.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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