It's amazing how music can reach across time and space to bring back valuable memories from the past. Whether it's helping us rejoice on gloomy days or healing us after traumatic events, sometimes all it takes is one particular song to remind us of precious moments from long ago. Now, research suggests music's link to memory is stronger than we've thought — and that connection might even help reach loved ones whose minds have been affected by dementia.
The April 2018 study, appearing in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, analyzed the brain activity of 17 participants with dementia as they listened to familiar songs. The patients tuned in to the music for 20 seconds at a time while the researchers took MRI scans. Experts then compared the brain's reaction to the music and to the silence. They found that the tunes activated some regions of the brain, causing them to show significantly higher functional connectivity.
How incredible is it that it just takes a few familiar notes for these patients' brains to literally "light up" on the scans? Anyone who knows the pain of desperately trying to connect with an ailing, nonverbal family member with dementia can take comfort in the researchers' theory that music taps in the last few parts of the brain that are relatively functioning. These researchers also believe that music could help calm some of these same patients who have anxiety — and even possibly bridge a gap between them and their devoted loved ones.
"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 senior author Norman Foster, MD, in a press release. "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."
That said, it is worth noting that the study was a small one including just 17 participants. A lot more research is needed to determine the best types of music-based treatment for people with dementia. It also remains unclear whether the music's effects on the patients linger beyond a brief listening session or whether any parts of their brains are enhanced in the long term.
However, it's hard to deny how promising these results sound — especially for people who have been struggling to connect with beloved relatives for years on end with no avail. Hopefully, this will turn out to be a way that they can truly "light up" their day!
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