Mu­sic good for Alzheimer’s pa­tients

Fa­mil­iar sounds can pro­vide cog­ni­tive boost to mildly im­paired brains

The Chatham Daily News - - LIFE - SH­ERYL UBELACKER

TORONTO — It’s long been known that Alzheimer’s pa­tients of­ten re­tain mu­si­cal mem­o­ries, even when re­call of names, faces and places has been lost as the dis­ease re­lent­lessly de­stroys key ar­eas of the brain.

Now Cana­dian re­searchers be­lieve they know why, thanks to the power of MRI brain scan­ning.

Toronto sci­en­tists en­rolled 20 peo­ple with early-stage Alzheimer’s or mild cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment in a study to dis­cern what was oc­cur­ring in their brains while they lis­tened to fa­mil­iar mu­sic and a com­po­si­tion they had never heard be­fore while hav­ing MRI scans.

When sub­jects lis­tened to the pre­vi­ously un­known com­po­si­tion, it lit up a re­gion of the brain known as the tem­po­ral lobe, “which is what we would have pre­dicted be­cause that part of the brain gets ac­ti­vated when you lis­ten to any­thing,” said prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor Dr. Corinne Fis­cher, di­rec­tor of the me­mory dis­or­ders clinic at St. Michael’s Hos­pi­tal.

But when par­tic­i­pants lis­tened to fa­mil­iar mu­sic — from a playlist of songs they had cho­sen go­ing back at least 20 years — there was a much more ex­ten­sive pat­tern of ac­ti­va­tion of sev­eral ar­eas of the brain, in­clud­ing those in­volved with emo­tion and the pro­cess­ing of lan­guage, move­ment and me­mory.

“There’s al­ways been this ques­tion of why mu­sic and the abil­ity to ap­pre­ci­ate mu­sic is pre­served, even in the lat­est stages of Alzheimer’s dis­ease,” Fis­cher said.

“And I think one of the things this tells us is that it may be not so much the mu­sic as it is that fa­mil­iar as­pect of the mu­sic and the fact that that’s ac­ti­vat­ing parts of the brain that aren’t typ­i­cally dam­aged by Alzheimer’s pathol­ogy.

“So that’s why even though you might not know your name, you may not know your en­vi­ron­ment, you may still be able to ap­pre­ci­ate a song be­cause it’s ac­ti­vat­ing those ar­eas that are not dam­aged.”

Lead au­thor Michael Thaut, a pro­fes­sor of mu­sic and neu­ro­science at the Univer­sity of Toronto, said it’s com­mon for peo­ple in even rel­a­tively ad­vanced stages of Alzheimer’s to call to mind the melodies and lyrics of songs from their past, as well as the au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal mem­o­ries at­tached to the mu­sic.

“They re­mem­ber quite a bit of mu­sic,” he said, adding that some­one might say “‘Yes, this is Duke Elling­ton’ or ‘This was my favourite mu­sic when I went out with my wife.’

“But up to this point, we had no idea what the brain mech­a­nisms are that drive these very long-last­ing mem­o­ries.”

That’s why the re­searchers have been ex­cited about their find­ings, which were pre­sented at a re­cent So­ci­ety for Neu­ro­science con­fer­ence in San Diego.

“This is the first study that we’re aware of that has ac­tu­ally stud­ied these kinds of mech­a­nisms and has come up with some ideas why the Alzheimer brain can re­tain mu­sic much longer than other stuff,” said Thaut, who de­signed the re­search and an­a­lyzed the data.

For Colleen Newell, tak­ing part in the re­search con­firmed some­thing she had long sus­pected — that her me­mory prob­lems and dif­fi­culty with or­ga­ni­za­tion were signs of cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment.

“Not only did I rec­og­nize I was drop­ping (for­get­ting) nouns, but that my mother has Alzheimer’s,” said the 60-year-old gui­tarist, pi­anist and song­writer, one of about five pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians in­cluded in the re­search.

“She’s 80, and she was hav­ing sim­i­lar me­mory is­sues at my age. So I wanted to have a base­line to see what was go­ing on.”

As part of the re­search, sub­jects were asked to lis­ten to their playlist for an hour a day for three weeks, while try­ing to rec­ol­lect as­so­ci­ated life events and dis­cussing them with fam­ily mem­bers or care­givers. They were then cog­ni­tively tested and also had their brains scanned again.

“What we found was there was im­prove­ment in brain func­tional con­nec­tiv­ity, changes in brain ac­ti­va­tion and also im­prove­ments in me­mory scores, which told us that by ex­pos­ing the brain re­peat­edly to this fa­mil­iar mu­sic, peo­ple were ac­tu­ally im­prov­ing cog­ni­tively and there was ev­i­dence that their brain was also chang­ing,” Fis­cher said.

Con­nec­tiv­ity is a mea­sure of in­for­ma­tion flow be­tween dif­fer­ent brain re­gions, an im­por­tant com­po­nent of neu­ro­log­i­cal func­tion; en­hanced con­nec­tiv­ity and the other changes sug­gest that re­peat­edly lis­ten­ing to fa­mil­iar mu­sic may give the Alzheimer-af­fected brain a cog­ni­tive boost, Thaut said.

Not only did I rec­og­nize I was drop­ping ( for­get­ting) nouns, but that my mother has Alzheimer’s.” Colleen Newell


Mu­si­cian Colleen Newell holds her gui­tar at St. Saviour’s Angli­can Church in Toronto on Fri­day, Novem­ber 2. It’s long been known that Alzheimer’s pa­tients of­ten re­tain mu­si­cal mem­o­ries, even when re­call of names, faces and places has been lost as the dis­ease re­lent­lessly de­stroys key ar­eas of the brain.

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