One of your all-time favorite songs starts playing on the radio, and suddenly, you’re transported. You remember belting it at the top of your lungs while driving that junker car with your high school friends, on your way to nowhere in particular. You remember jamming to it a few years later during your first semester of college, and it kept you going during those all-night study sessions. You remember the song keeping you sane while changing your first baby’s diaper — for the 20th time in one day.
Beloved music can tickle the brain and take us places, and it is this near-universal human experience that has prompted researchers to wonder if listening to familiar tunes can allay the cognitive and memory declines from Alzheimer’s disease.
A decade ago, preliminary research suggested it just might. Researchers in France exposed 12 patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease to a bout of silence, The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, or a selection of music of their own choosing. Then, they tested their autobiographical recall (that is, memory related to facts and experiences about one’s own life). “Recall was higher in the Chosen than in the Four Seasons conditions, and both were higher than in Silence,” they reported.
Inspired by this study, as well as by a few others hinting at broader benefits of music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients, a team of researchers based out of the University of Toronto tried to replicate the beneficial cognitive effects of familiar music and explored whether they are linked to actual changes in the structure of the brain. They detailed their findings in a paper just published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Led by senior author Michael Thaut, director of the University of Toronto’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, the researchers recruited 17 elderly patients with early-stage cognitive decline and asked them, with the help of their caregivers, to listen to an hour of well-known music per day for three weeks. Fourteen subjects (11 women and 3 men) completed the task.
The Montreal Cognitive Assessment, designed to test visuospatial and executive function, naming, attention, language, abstraction, delayed recall, and orientation, was administered before and after the music treatment. Brain scans with functional MRI were also conducted before and after.
Subjects’ overall cognitive test scores slightly improved after the three-week intervention, but the difference was not statistically significant, meaning the increase could just be due to chance. However, subjects’ memory scores did improve about 20 percent, a statistically significant boost. Brain scans also revealed minor structural changes in the brain, a hopeful sign in patients with early-stage cognitive decline.
“Repeated exposure to long-known music may induce cognitive effects through consistent changes in brain activation and functional connectivity of nodes… along with corresponding white matter changes,” the researchers wrote.
Music on hold
Despite the optimistic results, there are legitimate reasons for skepticism. The cognitive benefits were restricted only to memory, and they were minor. We also have no idea if they will persist over time. Moreover, the study group was small; a greater sample size might see the effects diminish. Lastly, there was no control group to compare the musical treatment group to. It would be interesting to see if subjects who listened to, say, informational podcasts would experience similar or perhaps greater cognitive benefits.
The University of Toronto researchers have presented an interesting, yet very preliminary study. Listening to familiar music is undeniably pleasant; there is certainly no harm in it. But it is highly unlikely that a simple treatment like music therapy will slow the presently unstoppable ravages of Alzheimer’s. For that, a pharmaceutical treatment is almost certainly required, and sadly, no drug has yet proven to be genuinely effective.