Music is very powerful in terms of human emotion, but did you know that it may also influence cognition? When we listen to music, it has the ability to transform us to another place and another time — which is exactly what we’re seeing with dementia patients.
Before we dive into the association between music and dementia, let’s focus on how music influences brain activity. How is it that music impacts cognition and what can we learn from those who can no longer access their memory? Here is what the research has to say.
How Music Influences the Brain
We have all heard a number of possible effects when it comes to music and the brain. Take classical music, for instance, a genre that has been said to stimulate brain activity, improving our ability to focus and retain information. These ideas come from years of research, showcasing the complexity of our minds and the impact of music.
What’s interesting, is that music is represented throughout the brain — not just within one localized area. This is due to the fact that music is much more than sound — it represents emotion, movement, language, and vision. Based on the connection between music and neurons, it is now being revisited as an instrument of healing.
The truth is, music therapy is an extremely old practice, but until now, it did not hold much credibility within modern science. We are now seeing some incredible results within the medical field, based on the power of music. From shifting the brain’s language center to Parkinson’s and dementia research, music is now a key focal point among cognitive neuroscientists.
While studying the brains of adult musicians, neuroimaging has revealed plastic changes within these individuals, but it’s unclear if this is due to musical training or preexisting biological markers. Researchers are particularly interested in how music impacts cognitive development.
Children who take part in musical training are a great example, as these individuals generally display greater verbal memory, reading ability, and executive functions. The structural and functional adaptation of the brain are highly based on both duration of practice and intensity. Overall, scientists believe that musical training provides a foundation for other skills.
What about those who are not musicians? How is it that music influences the average non-musical individual? When listening to music, how does it affect cognitive functioning? To better explore this connection, it’s important to look at the research conducted on students and the impact music has on complex cognitive processing.
While studying, many college students put on calming, relaxing music. Although this has been shown to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, it also appears to enhance performance under certain circumstances. Although this relationship is complex, neuroscientists agree that information that is set to music is among the easiest to remember.
This is why songs get stuck in your head and although you may not have heard a song for years, you can still recall the words. Some have described this interaction as a means to unlock stored information in the brain, and you guessed it, music acts as the initial cue. This is exactly what we’re seeing among dementia patients and the results are quite exciting.
Music Can ‘Awaken’ Dementia Patients
It’s no secret that we associate music with important events and past emotion — could it evoke a memory in those with Alzheimer’s? As mentioned, music is now being used as a form of therapy, especially among those with Alzheimer’s. In fact, researchers are now seeing positive results among patients who are in the very late stages of the disease.
When playing a familiar song, music has been shown to improve mood, reduce agitation, improve social interaction, influence motor skills, and facilitate cognition. Reducing agitation is a very important factor, as researchers estimate that this symptom affects between 70 to 90 percent of individuals in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
To target these types of problematic symptoms while improving social interaction with loved ones, individualized music therapy has been implemented. Focusing on the person’s music preference prior to the development of their disease, this therapy is being used as a form of communication — especially when the patient cannot understand verbal language.
What’s even more exciting, is that this form of therapy can stimulate remote memory, helping individuals reduce confusion within their immediate environment. In comparison, those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, may be able to use music as a means to improve both memory and mood.
Within one recent study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers offered a 10-week music coaching intervention, involving either regular singing or listening to familiar songs. Prior to this study, a longitudinal follow-up showed that music did, in fact, enhance cognitive skills, including executive functions, memory, and orientation.
In turn, the researchers were interested in what factors influence cognition and emotion, and were also interested in who would benefit the most. What they found, was that singing was beneficial for orientation, working memory, and executive function — especially among those with mild dementia and those who were younger (
When listening to music, however, cognitive benefits were only reported among those with a more advanced level of dementia. In terms of reducing symptoms of depression, both singing and listening were effective, especially among those with mild Alzheimer’s. It was concluded that musical activities could be used in both dementia care and rehabilitation.
At the end of the day, we know that dementia destroys the areas of the brain responsible for episodic memory, but in most cases, procedural memory is left intact. Musical knowledge is stored within our procedural memory, just as routines and repetitive activities are.
At this time, researchers are unaware of the lasting effects in terms of music aids. Could music therapy help individuals form new memories by harnessing their procedural memory? This is something that will continue to be investigated as we uncover more clues.
Regardless of current and even future research, one thing is clear — music has the ability to awaken those with dementia. It can lift their spirits and recognize their loved ones, even if it’s only for a brief moment in time. It can trigger emotion and reduce the chaos one feels within their own mind — which in itself, is very powerful.