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Music and Memory: Battling the Effects of Alzheimer's Disease


Man Music

Have you ever heard a familiar song start playing while shopping at the grocery store, eating at a restaurant, or driving in your car that instantly jogs an old memory and transports you back to a specific time? While most of us have experienced the power of music personally, there is scientific evidence that music has a powerful effect on the brain, even in those with Alzheimer’s disease.

An irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, Alzheimer’s disease affects more than 5.5 million Americans. As the disease progresses, once-healthy neurons stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and die, causing the loss of cognitive functioning and behavioral abilities.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” said Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD, associate professor in Radiology at University of Utah Health and contributing author on a study looking at how music affects the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. The study found that listening to music with personal meaning to the patient activates still relatively functioning regions of the brain, causing whole regions to communicate.

Using functional MRI, researchers found that listening to personally meaningful songs activated the visual network, the salience network, the executive network, and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs all showed significantly higher functional connectivity than when the patient was sitting in silence.

As “language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses…personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment,” said Norman Foster, MD, Director of the Center for Alzheimer's Care and Imaging Research at U of U Health and senior author on the paper. “This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease.”

Though the study only looked at 17 subjects, researchers are optimistic that the activation of several regions of the brain may delay the continuous decline caused by the disease. “No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life,” said Anderson. So next time you hear an old favorite on the radio, turn up the volume, relive the memories, and enjoy the power of music.