Home » News » Music Sparks Regions of Brain Spared by Alzheimer’s
Music Sparks Regions of Brain Spared by Alzheimer's

Music Sparks Regions of Brain Spared by Alzheimer’s

New research is looking into developing music-based treatments to help alleviate anxiety in dementia patients.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in Radiology at University of Utah Health and contributing author on the study. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

Researchers note that the salience network is spared from the ravages of the disease.

Previous work demonstrated the effect of a personalized music program on mood for dementia patients. The new study set out to examine a mechanism that activates the attentional network in the salience region of the brain, the researchers explained.

The results offer a new way to approach anxiety, depression, and agitation in patients with dementia.

Activation of neighboring regions of the brain may also offer opportunities to delay the continued decline caused by the disease, researchers said.

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

“When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive,” said Jace King, a graduate student in the Brain Network Lab and first author on the paper. “Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”

Using a functional MRI, the researchers were able to see the regions of the brain that lit up when they listened to 20-second clips of music versus silence.

The researchers played eight clips of music from the patient’s music collection, eight clips of the same music played in reverse, and eight blocks of silence. The researchers then compared the images from each scan.

The researchers found that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate. By listening to the personal soundtrack, the visual network, the salience network, the executive network and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs all showed significantly higher functional connectivity, according to the study’s findings.

“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” said Norman Foster, M.D., director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care at U of U Health and senior author on the paper.

“Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”

The researchers noted there were limitations to the study, including the small sample size of just 17 participants. In addition, the study included only a single imaging session for each patient.

It remains unclear 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 connectivity for the long term, the researchers said.

“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.”

The study was published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Source: University of Utah Health

Photo: This is a diagram of brain networks involved in processing attention. Credit: Brain Network Lab.

Music Sparks Regions of Brain Spared by Alzheimer’s

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Music Sparks Regions of Brain Spared by Alzheimer’s. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 28 Apr 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.