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Alzheimer's Patients' Brains Activate In Response To Their Favorite Songs


Previous studies have suggested that regularly listening to one's favorite songs reduces anxiety and psychosis in Alzheimer's patients. Berna Namoglu/Shutterstock

A team from the University of Utah are one step closer to understanding how the powerful link between music, emotion, and memory can be harnessed to help those suffering from the anxiety and agitation caused by Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Neuroscientists have recently discovered that the regions of our brains that encode musical memory are preserved from the progressive ravaging of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias for far longer than other brain regions. The network formed by these regions, called the salience network, plays the broader role of recognizing and processing stimuli that are emotionally charged, pleasurable, and self-relevant. 


Concurrently, clinical researchers have noticed that consistently playing an AD patient’s favorite music to them, a regimen referred to as a personalized music program, reduces the behavioral symptoms of the disease.

Trying to determine the actual neurological mechanisms behind the benefits of personalized music programs has been difficult, however, because so much is still unknown about how fully functional brains work, let alone those afflicted with degenerative diseases. It is theorized that activating the salience network soothes AD patients by sparking autobiographical memories tied to the music, triggering dopamine reward circuits, and firing up otherwise suppressed attention centers.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” said author Dr Jeff Anderson in a statement. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

To investigate the matter as directly as possible, Anderson and his colleagues turned to real-time MRI to map brain activity in 17 individuals with mild AD as they listened to eight of their favorite songs after a three-week period of regular listening.

The blue shaded areas were activated by familiar music. University of Utah

Their study, which will be published online next month, compared scans taken as each participant listened to 20-second stretches of the catchiest bits of their favorite songs, 20 seconds of these songs played backward, and 20 seconds of silence.

The images showed that listening to cherished songs, played normally, significantly increased the connectivity between a number of important brain regions, including the visual network, the executive network, and the supplementary motor area of the salience network.

“The specific activation of the supplementary motor area for favorite musical selections may suggest an attentional mechanism for symptomatic improvements,” the paper states, “whereby preferred musical selections evoke brain attentional responses, at least for a window time following the musical stimuli.” 

Of course, because the experiment was only conducted once, it is impossible to extrapolate whether hearing cherished songs induces long-lasting positive changes, or if the experience simply provides a fleeting mood boost. The authors also concede that larger studies should be undertaken to determine which specific areas of the brain networks are most impacted. 


Nevertheless, the findings support the anecdotal benefits of personalized music interventions and open the door for exciting future research.

“In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max,” Anderson said. “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.”


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