Musical therapy

By Emily Fasold

Music has been said to soothe the soul. Favorite tunes often feel therapeutic as they carry people through their darkest moments. But new research from the Boston University School of Medicine suggests that for Alzheimer’s disease patients, music may also improve memory.

The study, published in the online journal “Neuropsychologia,” was the first to examine music’s cognitive benefits for Alzheimer’s patients in particular.

The data showed that Alzheimer’s patients were 40 percent more successful at remembering information presented in the context of song rather than

spoken word.

“Given their memory impairment is so profound, we were hoping to see an increase, but we certainly didn’t expect as much of an increase as we saw,” said the study’s co-author Brandon Ally.

In the study, researchers presented Alzheimer’s patients and a control group of healthy seniors with 40 sets of spoken and sung words broadcast on a computer screen. Following each presentation, participants were tested on their memory of the words.

Data showed that the patients had better luck remembering the lyrical information, but the healthy seniors did not.

“We were really hoping the healthy adults would show the benefit of music for memory,” Ally said. “But if anything comes from this, it’s that Alzheimer’s patients can show significant benefit from encoding verbal and non-verbal information with music.”

Lead study author Nicholas Simmons-Stern, a specialist in music and Alzheimer’s research, said he was inspired to do the study by frequent claims from patients and caregivers that musical memory seems to be one of the few cognitive functions not affected by the disease.

“I’ve seen patients who could not communicate and were totally unresponsive hear songs and experience an awakening that allows them to interact in ways that they couldn’t have without music,” Simmons-Stern said. “So we hypothesized that music would be used to enhance their memory specifically.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia among the elderly, affecting approximately half of all people older than 85. The disease kills the connection between brain cells, which often results in debilitating memory loss.

The exact causes of the disease are currently unknown, but because it is so prevalent in elderly populations, some experts have thought that it could actually be a normal part of aging, Ally said.

According to him, follow-up studies that revolve around individualized iPod

playlists to help patients remember daily tasks are currently underway and are expected to be published in the near future.

Researchers agree that although the connection between music and memory enhancement has not been studied enough to make definite conclusions, the findings suggest that music therapy could be used to treat Alzheimer’s patients down the line.

“This doesn’t mean that music is a cure for Alzheimer’s or that it will make them completely functional,” Simmons-Stern said. “But it could greatly improve the lives of patients.”