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How listening to meaningful music on repeat can help dementia patients

Researchers concluded that the repeated exposure to meaningful music, improved brain function in all participants

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Cheerful elderly woman listening to music with headphones over white background

By Georgia Lambert via SWNS

Listening to a favorite song on repeat is good for dementia patients, suggests a new study.

Canadian researchers found that hearing "personally meaningful" tunes on repeat — such as the one they danced to at their wedding — aids the brain functions of people with mild cognitive impairments or even early Alzheimer’s disease.

Study senior author Professor Michael Thaut, of the University of Toronto, said: “We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music - that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like a song they danced to at their wedding, stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning.”

Professor Thaut, who also holds the Tier One Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health, explained: “Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients.

“These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia — musicians and non-musicians alike.”

Lifestyle, tehnology and old people concept: image of an elderly gray-haired man listening to music with headphones over white background
When participants listened to their well-known music they activated the deep-encoded network in the prefrontal cortex. (Shutterstock)

During a study, 14 participants - eight non-musicians and six musicians - listened to a carefully curated playlist of autobiographically relevant music for one hour a day over the course of three weeks.

While listening, the participants underwent structural and task-based functional MRI scans before and after the listening period, to figure out whether there had been changes to brain function and structure.

In the scans, they listened to clips of both well-known and newly composed music, which was similar in style yet held no personal meaning.

When the participants listened to the recently heard, newly composed music, brain activity occurred mainly in the auditory cortex, and it centered on the listening experience.

However, when the participants listened to their well-known music, they activated the deep-encoded network in the prefrontal cortex, which showed the scientists that they were cognitively engaged.

The study also showed strong engagement in subcortical brain regions which were older and had been minimally affected by Alzheimer’s disease pathology.

These findings provided evidence that when exposed to autobiographically recognizable music, patients in early-stage cognitive decline can still activate their neural networks.

The team also observed differences in the brain’s connections and white matter, which provided the scientists with even more proof of neuroplasticity.

Corinne Fischer, the director of Geriatric Psychiatry at St Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health Toronto, was the lead author and said: “Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline.”

Ms. Fischer, who is also an associate professor at UOT’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine, added: “Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date.

“While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualized and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”

The researchers reported subtle but distinct differences in structural and functional brain changes when listening to music in musicians relative to non-musical people, though further studies are needed to verify these findings.

Regardless of musicianship, the researchers concluded that the repeated exposure to meaningful music, improved brain function in all participants.

Professor Thaut said: “Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex.

“It’s simple — keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favourite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you — make that your brain gym.”

This study has been built on a previous area of research in which the same participant group identified the brain mechanisms that encode and preserve musical memories in people with early-stage cognitive decline.

In the future, the team plans on replicating the study using a larger sample of people to investigate the role musicianship plays in moderating brain responses, and whether it is the music or the memories attached to the music that changes brain plasticity.

The findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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