Music may help restore cognitive functions in dementia patients
Platosaid music "gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flightto the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything."Two and a halfmillennia later, a study by researchers at the University of Utah issuggesting that music-based treatments may indeed provide significanthelp in revitalizing patients plagued by mental illness, by liftingtheir mood and improving many important cognitive functions.
The so-called"salience network," the portion of our brains that is stimulatedwhen we hear a touching piece of music, seems to be relativelyunaffected by mental ilness. For some anectodal examples, look nofurther thanBritish musician Clive Wearing, a man whose memory only spans 30 seconds but who canstill play the piano proficiently, or the cases of many depressed andcatatonic nursing home patients who appear completely revitalized after listeningto music from their youth.
Astudy published by University of Utah scientists set out to documentthe effects that familiar music would have on the cognitive functionsof dementia patients, in the hope to alleviate common symptoms suchas anxiety and disorientation.
The17 study participants first selected songs that were meaningful tothem, and were trained (along with their caregivers) on how to use aportable music player containing those songs. The scientists thentook fMRI scans of the patients' brains to observe their cerebralactivity as they listened to 20-second clips of their favorite songs,the same clips played in reverse, and silence.
Accordingto the data, listening to familiar music caused much higher levels ofconnectivity in several regions of the brain – not only thesalience network but also the visual network, the executive network,and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar networks.
"Thisis objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personallymeaningful music is an alternative route for communicating withpatients who have Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Norman Foster,one of the study's authors. "Language and visual memory pathwaysare damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized musicprograms can activate the brain, especially for patients who arelosing contact with their environment."
Of course, this is nopanacea. Theresearchers note that the results are by no means conclusive becauseof the small sample size and the inclusion of a single imagingsession for each patient. More research is needed to establish howlong the improvements persist – whether they are strictly temporaryor have long-term effects.
"Noone 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 costof care and improve a patient's quality of life."
Theirresearch appeared in this month's issue of The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.
Source: University of Utah
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