Music might be a viable method of tapping into the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, according to new research, with the potential to treat and manage anxiety and agitation through familiar tunes.
As Alzheimer’s disease takes its toll on the brain, language and memory centres are the first to go, leaving patients feeling emotionally distressed as they face an increasingly unfamiliar environment, with a decreasing ability to communicate.
A recent study suggests that these symptoms can be managed by tapping into those areas of the brain left relatively functional throughout the progression of the disease. The salience network of the brain, responsible for attention, is one of these areas – or rather, it is a collection of areas. Researchers out of the University of Utah sought to find a way to activate the salience network of the brain in patients with dementia, and may have found just the tool for the job: music.
The same network of brain regions underlying attention are also the ones responsible for the “chills” a cognitively healthy person might experience when listening to music. Because the salience network is thought to be spared the worst in the wake of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have hypothesized that a music-based intervention might be a means of accessing patients with dementia, and a way of communicating with a deteriorating brain.
The new study, authored by researchers from University of Utah Health, recruited 17 Alzheimer’s patients diagnosed with dementia as participants. Each were given a portable media player, and over a period of three weeks, were trained to operate the device in cooperation with their caregivers and assisted in selecting a personal playlist of songs that were deemed familiar and meaningful to them.
The study itself had participants listen to their music under fMRI. Researchers scanned the brains of these patients while eight 20-second snippets of their personal song choices were played, and again, during eight periods of silence in the room.
Comparing brain images from both conditions, it was found that music did in fact activate the brains of these dementia patients. Their song choices elicited activity in the salience network, but also across visual, cerebellar, and executive networks – all of which showed “higher functional connectivity” with music compared to silence.
The study is set to be published online in this month’s issue of The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Though its sample size was small, researchers cite the findings from their study as “objective evidence…that personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” and though not a cure for the disease itself, music “might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life.” These two statements come from Norman Foster and Jeff Anderson, respectively: two authors on the recent study.
Further research is required in order to determine whether the pattern of effects observed in the study are robust enough to continue past a single session, and whether such effects result in meaningful, long-term changes in functional connectivity in the brain of a dementia patient.
However, this study isn’t the first in the field to demonstrate the power of music on those with Alzheimer’s. Previous findings, both experimental and anecdotal, have suggested that the familiarity of music brings more than just relief from anxiety to dementia patients, but also improved mood – even joy.
Jace King, a graduate student from the University of Utah who was first author on the new study, seems convinced of this fact in his statement for Utah Health’s newsroom: When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive.”