Music shows promising potential to slow the progression of dementia

In 2020, an extraordinary video went viral. It featured Marta Cinta González Saldaña, a former ballet dancer who suffered from severe Alzheimer’s disease in her final years. In the video, Saldaña is played a piece by Tchaikovsky Swan Lake and suddenly she wakes up and starts moving into a dance routine that she probably rehearsed over and over in her younger days.

These types of clips have been shared for years and they show the amazing way music can revitalize dormant neural pathways in elderly people suffering from severe forms of dementia. And while music therapy is now a common practice in nursing homes, little research has focused on the neural mechanisms behind the phenomena, and specifically what types of music might optimize potential brain benefits.

Primera Bailarina – Ballet en Nueva York – Años 60 – Música para Despertar

A new study led by Psyche Loui of Northeastern University’s Music Imaging and Neural Dynamics Lab answers two specific questions regarding this incredible music-triggered phenomenon. How does a controlled eight-week program of music therapy affect the activity and connectivity between auditory and reward areas of the brain? And the beneficial effects of music are enhanced when the music is self-selected and focuses on songs that are particularly meaningful to a person.

To investigate this, the research team recruited a small cohort of cognitively healthy older adults. Working with a music therapist, each volunteer created two playlists of music – one titled “Energetic” and the other titled “Relaxing”.

The cohort was asked to listen to music from their self-selected playlists for one hour a day for a period of eight weeks. The hour-long daily music experience was designed to be focused, so each subject was asked to pay attention to their moods, emotions, and memories while listening to their playlists. This wasn’t just playing tunes in the background while he went about his daily chores.

At the beginning and end of the study, each participant also took part in a brain imaging test in which they listened to 24 different audio snippets. Six of these exceptions were chosen by the participants themselves, while the rest were other pieces of music from many different genres chosen by the researchers.

In an email to New Atlas, Loui explained how her team’s findings showed that the eight-week music intervention resulted in increased connectivity in some key brain regions.

“We found changes in auditory connectivity to the reward system, specifically the connectivity between the auditory network and the medial prefrontal cortex (which is part of the reward system) was increased after the intervention,” Loui noted. “We also saw that the correct executive control network, which encompasses regions important for attention and executive functioning, became more accurate in representing music after the intervention.”

According to Loui, this study is the first time a music-based intervention has been shown to produce longitudinal improvements in connectivity between these specialized brain networks. From a clinical perspective, these results are exciting as reduced connectivity and activity in the medial prefrontal cortex is observed in a range of neurodegenerative diseases, as well as psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression.

The other important finding of the study was that self-selected music appealed to these brain pathways much more effectively than other types of unfamiliar music. Loui added that the most effective self-selected music seems to be songs related to a participant’s younger years.

“…we had participants listen to about one-third self-selected music and two-thirds researcher-selected music while their brains were scanned so we could compare brain activity between self-selected and other selected music. [and] We found that self-chosen music engages the brain much more effectively,” explained Loui. “The most effective music for the participant tends to come from adolescence and early adulthood.”

Interestingly, the finding that the most effective music for revitalizing neural pathways in old age is that heard in adolescence is reminiscent of a large number of studies showing how music and cultural tastes are fundamentally shaped during a person’s teenage years. Film theorist David Bordwell once referred to this phenomenon as “the law of the adolescent window,” and these new brain imaging results provide certainty that certain neural pathways associated with cultural experiences are truly locked down during these crucial formative years.

“Between the ages of 13 and 18, a window opens for all of us,” Bordwell wrote. “The cultural pastimes that then attract us, those that we are attracted to and even obsessed with, will always have a powerful impact. We can broaden our tastes as we grow out of those years – we should – but we will always love the sports, hobbies, books, TV, movies and music we loved back then.”

A key finding from the study is that there can be no one-size-fits-all strategy for music therapy, Loui emphasized. So it’s important to listen to music you like, but what this study can’t answer exactly is how clinically effective music therapy can be in treating patients with dementia.

… Music is a key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex

Michael Tau

A study published last year by University of Toronto researchers examined an intervention similar to Louis’ work, but in Alzheimer’s patients with very early-stage cognitive decline. It was a small study and compared the effect between musicians and non-musicians of three weeks of daily one-hour listening sessions to familiar music.

While brain activity was slightly different in the participants with a history of music making, there were clear signs of cognitive improvement in both groups after three weeks of music therapy. The study’s lead author, Michael Thaut, said listening to familiar music in recent years can be seen as a form of brain training.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never played an instrument, music is a key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” Thaut said. “It’s simple: keep listening to the music you’ve loved all your life. Your favorite songs of all time, those pieces that are particularly important to you. Make this your brain gym.”

Of course, it’s too early to say that simply listening to your favorite music can help fight the neurodegeneration associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s. However, Loui is trying to further these new findings with some follow-up research to see if things can be added to a music listening session to amplify the effects on the brain.

“We are attempting to conduct a control intervention that does not involve listening to music,” Loui said. “We also want to complement this music-based intervention with multimodal stimulation, e.g. B. by adding lights to the music to enhance the experience of rhythmic stimulation in the brain.”

The new study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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