How music unlocks memories: a non-pharmacological intervention

I recently became certified as a hospice volunteer and I was paired with my first hospice patient last month. In my first visit to the nursing home, I saw how depressing they could be; many residents were withdrawn, unresponsive, and lacked a sense of spirit. I later stumbled upon the documentary “Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory” and what I saw amazed me (see attached video!). Simply by giving headphones and an iPod containing familiar music to residents with Alzheimer’s disease they became more communicable, they were able to recall details of their childhood, and overall they seemed more alive. I was immediately interested in finding out how music was capable of such drastic alterations in behavior and affect. Although several interviews with doctors attempted to explain the biological basis behind this phenomenon they used vague language that did not point to specific brain areas. For example they stated “music has the ability to activate more parts of the brain than any other stimulus” and “by exciting or awakening those pathways we have a gateway to stimulate and reach somebody who otherwise is unreachable”.

After further research I found that there are common neural substrates for music and language and music is thought to enhance autobiographical narration in patients with linguistic processing and narrative production deficits (Koelsch et al., 2002). The authors defined these neural substrates as the right temporal gyrus (involved in processing pitch and melodies) and the right and left frontal operculum. Additionally, a 2009 study (Schlaug, Marchina & Norton) found music exposure stimulates Broca’s area in Alzheimer’s disease patients – which in turn enhances their ability to produce language. As suggested by the doctors and psychologists in “Alive Inside” music has the capability to stimulate the neural pathway for language.

Not only is music shown to act as a mental outlet for residents to leave the walls of the nursing home, but it reduces the reliance on expensive anti-psychotic medications which were not designed for the elderly in the first place (they increase the risk of falls because they cause dizziness and fatigue). Although outside of conventional practice, we may be able to use music, instead of medication, to treat Alzheimer’s and dementia.


Works Cited:

Alive Inside. Dir. Michael Rossato-Bennett. BOND/360, 2014. Online.

Koelsch et., al. (2002). Bach speaks: A cortical “language-network” serves the processing of music. Neurolmage, 17, 956-966.

Schlaug, G., Marchina, S. (2009). Evidence for plasticity in white-matter tracts of patients with chronic broca’s aphasia undergoing intense intonation-based speech therapy. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169, 385-394.

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