Plato said music "gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything." Two and a half millennia later, a study by researchers at the University of Utah is suggesting that music-based treatments may indeed provide significant help in revitalizing patients plagued by mental illness, by lifting their mood and improving many important cognitive functions.

The so-called "salience network," the portion of our brains that is stimulated when we hear a touching piece of music, seems to be relatively unaffected by mental ilness. For some anectodal examples, look no further than British musician Clive Wearing, a man whose memory only spans 30 seconds but who can still play the piano proficiently, or the cases of many depressed and catatonic nursing home patients who appear completely revitalized after listening to music from their youth.

A study published by University of Utah scientists set out to document the effects that familiar music would have on the cognitive functions of dementia patients, in the hope to alleviate common symptoms such as anxiety and disorientation.

The 17 study participants first selected songs that were meaningful to them, and were trained (along with their caregivers) on how to use a portable music player containing those songs. The scientists then took fMRI scans of the patients' brains to observe their cerebral activity as they listened to 20-second clips of their favorite songs, the same clips played in reverse, and silence.

According to the data, listening to familiar music caused much higher levels of connectivity in several regions of the brain – not only the salience network but also the visual network, the executive network, and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar networks.

"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 Dr. Norman Foster, one of the study's authors. "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."

Of course, this is no panacea. The researchers note that the results are by no means conclusive because of the small sample size and the inclusion of a single imaging session for each patient. More research is needed to establish how long the improvements persist – whether they are strictly temporary or have long-term effects.

"No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer's disease," said associate professor James Anderson, another author of the study. "But it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient's quality of life."

Their research appeared in this month's issue of The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.