A battle cry to inspire a revolution, a national hymn of patriotism, a pop groove that moves your body—music has always served as a powerful force throughout human history. Now, a new study is showing it can also potentially change our brains and improve brain function in older adults with Alzheimer’s.
Researchers at the University of Toronto and Unity Health Toronto published the results of their recent study in the “Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease” that shows a correlation between listening to “personally meaningful music” and “beneficial brain plasticity” in adults with early Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment.
“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients,” said Michael Thaut, senior author of the study, who also holds the tier one Canada Research Chair in Music, Neuroscience and Health. “These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia—musicians and non-musicians alike.”
The study found that listening to what Thaut describes as “autobiographically salient music” – basically, songs that are particularly meaningful for an individual – led to stimulation of neural connectivity. That stimulation helped change neural pathways in the brain, including the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that serves as a key player in cognitive controls. The prefrontal cortex also plays a role in a person’s attention span and ability to control impulses.
By exposing these patients to this meaningful music – a song from their wedding, for example – a neural network of various regions in the brain was activated. The team also noticed changes in the brain’s white matter – nerve fibers in the deeper tissues of the brain – that serves as evidence of improved neuroplasticity—basically, the brain’s ability to keep reorganizing as we progress through life, allowing us to learn and adapt.
The team said the findings were especially exciting as a potential tool for preventing cognition issues in seniors.
“Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” said Corinne Fischer, associate professor in the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine, and director of geriatric psychiatry at St. Michael’s Hospital, Unity Health Toronto. “Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date. While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualized and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”
And just like the feelings you might experience when you hear a rousing rendition of the national anthem, the research team said the familiarity of the music was a key factor. Listening to new music led only to brain activity in the auditory cortex – the part of the brain responsible for processing sounds and voices – but the familiar music triggered activity in the prefrontal cortex, along with the subcortical brain regions, which are typically not as affected by Alzheimer’s.
The research findings added to previous studies on how familiar music affects the brain. That earlier study found the long-known music was effective at engaging a bilateral network of brain regions and sparked questions about how that engagement could offer clues about the power of music on older adults with cognitive impairment.
The University of Toronto researchers next plan to replicate the research using a larger number of patients.