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Alzheimer’s Disease and Music: A Door to Past and New Memories

Music can soothe and trigger memories. It is as such that music is most often used with Alzheimer’s patients. A new study suggests that music may also be used as a booster for learning new things, an ability very impaired in those with Alzheimer’s.

Individuals with Alzheimer’s and matched controls were presented with unfamiliar songs lyrics: half of the lyrics were sung and half were merely spoken. Participants were then presented with the lyrics they had heard as well as with new ones, and asked whether they recognized any lyrics.

Alzheimer’s patients’ memory was much better for sung lyrics than for spoken ones. There was no difference between the two types of lyrics for the healthy older adults.

Why do people with Alzheimer’s seem to benefit from musical stimuli? The authors of the study suggest that this is because music is processed more broadly in the brain than non-musical information. Moreover some areas in this network are only slowly affected by the disease:

Music processing encompasses a complex neural network that recruits from all areas of the brain, including subcortical areas such as the basal ganglia […] and cortical areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex  and orbitofrontal cortex that are affected at a slower rate in AD compared to the areas of the brain typically associated with memory.

It is also possible that musical information increases arousal and thus sharpens attention, which would benefit Alzheimer’s patients who have trouble focusing.

These results may have many practical applications: Musical mnemonics may be used by caregivers to teach crucial new information to people suffering from Alzheimer’s, such as a phone number or when to take a pill. Using known songs to present the information may help individuals register it more easily, which is very encouraging and easy to do.

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