Music activates brain regions spared from Alzheimer's disease

If you want to help a loved one with dementia, we can offer you a listening session to stimulate the brain effectively

Ever get chills listening to a particularly moving piece of music? You can thank the brain's salience network for this emotional connection. Surprisingly, this region also remains an island of memory untouched by the ravages of Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers at the University of Utah Health are looking to this brain region to develop music-based treatments to help relieve anxiety in dementia patients. Their research will appear in the April 2018 online issue of the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.

"People with dementia face an unfamiliar world, which causes disorientation and anxiety," said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah Health and author of the study. "We believe that music will tap into the brain's salience network that is still functioning relatively well."

Previous work has shown the effect of a personalised music programme on mood in patients with dementia. This study aimed to examine a mechanism that activates the attentional network in the brain's salience region. The results offer a new way to address anxiety, depression and agitation in patients with dementia. Activating neighbouring brain regions may also offer opportunities to delay the ongoing decline caused by the disease.

Over the course of three weeks, the researchers helped participants choose meaningful songs and trained the patient and caregiver on how to use a portable media player loaded with the self-selected music collection.

"When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive," said Jace King, a graduate student at the Brain Network Lab and first author of the study. "The music is like an anchor, connecting the patient to reality."

Using functional MRI, the researchers scanned the patients to image which areas of the brain lit up when listening to 20-second music clips rather than silence. The researchers played eight clips of music from the patient's music collection, eight clips of the same music played backwards and eight blocks of silence. The researchers compared the images from each scan.

The researchers found that the music activated the brain, causing whole regions to communicate. When listening to the personal soundtrack, the visual network, the salience network, the executive network and the cerebellar and cortico-cerebellar network pairs all showed significantly higher functional connectivity.

Music activates brain regions spared from Alzheimer's disease

"This is objective evidence from brain imaging that music that makes sense to patients is an alternative pathway for communicating with those with Alzheimer's disease," said Norman Foster, MD, director of the Center for Alzheimer's Disease at the University of Utah Health and lead author of the study. "The language and visual memory pathways are damaged early in the disease, but personalised music programmes can activate the brain, especially for patients who lose touch with their environment.

However, these results are not conclusive. The researchers note the small sample size (17 participants) for this study. In addition, the study included only one imaging session for each patient. It remains to be seen whether the effects identified in this study persist beyond a brief period of stimulation or whether other areas of memory or mood are enhanced by changes in neural activation and long-term connectivity.

"In our society, diagnoses of dementia are becoming increasingly common and resource intensive," said Anderson. "No one is saying that playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it could make symptoms more manageable, lower the cost of care and improve the patient's quality of life."

Source: University of Utah Health. "Music activates regions of the brain spared by Alzheimer's disease." ScienceDaily, 28 April 2018.

Our personalised programme with the Tomatis® method

If you want to help a loved one with dementia, we can offer you a listening session to stimulate the brain effectively, for 2 hours a day, for one or two weeks. You will be given a portable TalksUp® device, which you can take with you to carry out the treatment.

To follow this specific programme, please contact the Tomatis® Centre in Geneva on +41 22 519 00 11 or by using the appropriate form.