Last updated May 10, 2018 at 11:45 am
Music with an emotional link could help reach through the fog of dementia.
The salience network in our brains is like a personal radio host, recognising our favourite music and pairing it with an emotional connection to ensure the tune will stay with you forever. And this area also remains unaffected by Alzheimer’s disease, a study has found.
Researchers from the University of Utah Health are examining this region’s ability to select which stimuli are deserving of our attention as a foundation for music-based treatments for anxiety, depression and agitation in dementia patients.
“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety” said Jeff Anderson, associate professor at University of Utah Health.
“We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”
In numerous videos on Youtube, elderly people with dementia are elated to hear Frank Sinatra crooning “Fly Me To The Moon” – their whole expression changes, they become more talkative and remember fragments of their youth from the blurry haze of memory loss.
“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.
“Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”
Using MRI technology, the researchers scanned these regions to assess their activity when the patient listened to their personalised playlist compared to silence.
Comparing the images, the team found that music encourages whole regions of the brain to communicate. The visual network, the salience network, the executive network and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs all demonstrated higher functional connectivity.
“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, who supervised the research.
“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.”
Despite the positive results, the study was not conclusive and it yet remains unclear as to whether the effects of music on the salience network can persist beyond initial stimulation, or if other areas of memory and mood are improved by the activation of neural connections.
“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.
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