Is there a special connection between music and the brain?
Why are musical memories one of the last memories to go in Alzheimer’s patients?
In this blog you will learn about a patient of ours, Paul, who is being treated with both physical and occupational therapy. Paul is responding very well to music therapy interventions. You will also read about Tony Bennet’s story, and how music impacts his Alzheimer’s treatment.
Alzheimer’s is a common disease affecting over 3 million people in the United States. It is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions. The main symptoms are memory loss and confusion. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but symptoms can be temporarily improved and managed.
Music can unlock memories
in Alzheimer’s patients
The link between music and the brain
Music is a powerful memory cue, like our sense of smell and taste. We have all had the experience of smelling something which immediately triggers a detailed memory or even intense emotion. I find the smell of baking a Thanksgiving meal can bring thoughts of the upcoming holiday season. Music is very similar! Many Alzheimer’s patients forget recent events, names or conversations but can recall musical memories from the past, bringing them joy and comfort. Maybe a song from their wedding or a familiar piece played at a concert.
“Studies have noted the benefits of music on autobiographical and episodic memory, and even on cognitive function and psychiatric symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.” *
Why do music memories remain, while other memories and cells in different parts of the brain are dying?
“The network encoding musical memory is at least partly independent of other memory systems. Interestingly, it has been shown that different aspects of musical memory can remain intact while brain anatomy and corresponding cognitive functions are massively impaired. Musical memory also appears to represent a special case in Alzheimer’s disease, in that it is often surprisingly well preserved, especially implicit musical memory, which may be spared until very late stages of the disease.” (*Baird and Samson, 2009; Finke et al., 2012)
For a deep dive into the science, I encourage you to read the following 2015 abstract and article from Brain magazine, on why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers have studied the parts of the brain
activated by familiar music in healthy patients.
They noticed that in Alzheimer’s patients, those same
areas and cells were less affected by disease.
“Music stimulates the sensory regions of the brain that process sound as well as the amygdala, which plays a key role in emotional processing. The amygdala is also important for encoding the emotional qualities of memory. One hypothesis is that these regions of the brain are more resilient to cell death.” *
Tony Bennet’s Story
Musician Tony Bennet was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016, though he continued to perform and record until 2020. His constant singing and practicing kept his brain stimulated and spared him from symptoms such as disorientation, depression, and detachment.
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett are close friends, working and performing together for years. She describes seeing first-hand how his symptoms, in the later stages of his disease, would disappear when he was singing and performing. Check out this fascinating article on Tony Bennett and his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This is a great example of someone who neurologically comes alive when experiencing music.
How we help our patients with music therapy
Mobile PT’s Victoria is currently working with our patient Paul (see picture). Victoria has been an Occupational Therapist for over 23 years and specializes in Neuro Developmental Treatment for patients with neurological issues such as stroke patients and Alzheimer’s patients. Paul, who was an engineer, has Alzheimer’s and receives occupational therapy as well as physical therapy.
Paul has responded extremely well to the addition of music during his treatment. Victoria plays music throughout the session and finds he communicates and participates in whatever activity he is doing better when the music is playing. His sentences are longer, and thoughts are clearer with music on in the background. His smile lights up and his head starts bobbing to the beat. Paul also claps to the beat, and this enthusiasm sometimes spreads to others who join in.
Paul prefers E.L.O. or the Beatles and even gets up and dances with his walker, taps and swings it rhythmically, which is a fantastic balance intervention! The benefits are many; he is happy, mentally engaged and stimulated. Added bonus? He is physically moving which helps him stay strong and healthy. Victoria also uses memory books in her treatment and finds that photos spark memories in her patients in a similar way to music, opening up pathways and strengthening those areas of the brain.
Paul’s wife notes that “while sitting, he loves when family members, friends and caregivers engage, interact, and even sing or hum with him, taking his hands and swinging them side to side or up and down. It’s a great time!”
Music therapy, compared to traditional medical treatment, is easy to do, and is fun! I love that it can involve other family members and is an enjoyable experience for all. Whether you are singing, playing, or just listening; make a list of songs that might trigger fond memories for your loved one. I always approach therapy with a team mindset, the more people involved the better. The bonds created through music are profound.
Dan Sheehy is a Physical Therapist and the owner of Mobile PT, based in San Diego’s North County. Mobile PT strives to keep seniors strong and secure, decreasing fear and risk of falling. Our mission is to keep seniors confident and safe where they live to maximize their quality of life and maintain their independence.