Toronto – Alzheimer's patients have long been known to maintain musical memories, even when remembering names, faces and places, when the disease constantly destroys central areas of the brain.
Now Canadian researchers believe they know why, thanks to the power of brain scanning MRI.
Scientists in Toronto enrolled 20 people with early Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment in the study to observe what was happening in their minds as they listened to music and recognized a composition they had never heard before during MRI scans.
When the subjects listened to a composition that was not previously known, it ignited a region of the brain called the temporal lobe. "This is what we would predict that this part of the brain gets activated when you listen to everything," said lead investigator Dr. Corinne Fisher, St. Michael Hospital.
But when participants listened to familiar music – from a playlist of songs that chose to return for at least 20 years – there was a much broader pattern of action in several areas of the brain, including those related to emotion and language processing, movement and memory.
"There was always this question, why music and the ability to appreciate music is preserved, even in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease," Fisher said.
"And I think one of the things that tell us is that maybe it's not so much music, because it's the familiar aspect of the music and the fact that it activates parts of the brain that are not usually damaged by the pathology of Alzheimer's.
"So because of this maybe you do not know your name, you may not know your environment, you can still be able to appreciate a song because it activates those areas that are not damaged."
Author Michael T. Ott, professor of music and neuroscience at the University of Toronto, said that it is common for people in the relatively advanced stages of Alzheimer's to mention the melodies and lyrics of songs from their past as well as the autobiographical memories attached to music.
"They remember quite a bit of music," he said, adding that someone would say, "Yes, that's Duke Ellington," or "That was my favorite music when I went out with my wife."
"But so far we had no idea what brain mechanisms drive these long memories."
That's why researchers are excited about their findings, which were presented Wednesday as a "hot topic" at a conference of the San Diego Brain Science Association.
"This is the first study we are aware of that has actually studied such mechanisms and has come up with some ideas that the Alzheimer's brain can keep music much longer than other things," said Dr. Ott, who designed the study and analysis of the data.
"So I think it's groundbreaking research."
For Colin Newell, who took part in the study, confirmed something she had long suspected-that the problems in her memories and her difficulty with the organization were signs of cognitive impairment.
"That's one reason I went into the study," said the 60-year-old guitarist, pianist and songwriter, one of five professional musicians included in the study. "Not only did I recognize that I was abandoning (forgetting) nouns, but my mother has Alzheimer's.
"She was 80, and she had similar memory problems at my age, so I wanted to be a base to see what was happening."
In the study, participants were asked to listen to their playlist for one hour a day for three weeks, trying to recall events related to life and discuss them with family or caregivers. They were then cognitively tested and scanned their brains again.
"What we found was an improvement in functional connectivity in the brain, changes in brain activation and improvements in memory scores, which told us that by repeatedly exposing the brain to this familiar music, people actually improved cognitively and there was evidence that their brains also changed," Fisher said.
Connectivity is a measure of the flow of information between different brain regions, an important component of neurological function; Improved connectivity and other changes suggest that repeated listening to familiar music may give the Alzheimer's brain a cognitive boost, said Dr. Ott, and called for "amazing" results.
"So I think we're sitting on something very important."
Fischer said these are preliminary results that need to be replicated in much larger research, and future research should also determine whether the positive effects of routine listening to familiar music continue or pass.
However, the researchers hope their findings may provide the basis for a focused form of music therapy to slow progression of Alzheimer's disease and possibly other types of dementia – none of them have effective drug therapy or medication.
"Alzheimer's disease at this stage is irreversible," said Thaut, who suggests people with a condition can mimic the study protocol on their own, by listening to familiar songs of the past every day and remembering the events of life and music triggers.
"We can not say you'll be well," he said. "But we can say if you mess with this kind of exercise with your family, your friends, with your therapist, your spouse, even go to concerts, just engage your brain in music, from the data we have will have some cognitive benefit."
While research has found that musicians do not seem to make more cognitive gains than those routinely playing devices routinely, Newell said she hopes to continue the research protocol on her own "will hit me to keep me going."
"And this encourages me to listen, just to listen to music," said Newell, the worship leader of the Anglican Church of Toronto, whose role includes spiritual music.
"I guess she's incorporating it more into my daily life."
– By Cheryl Oblakar, Canada Press