— by Jeff Jurmain, MA
Researchers in Boston have uncovered an amazing new tool to help sharpen the memories of those with Alzheimer’s disease. They found that such patients are better able to remember new information when it is provided in the context of music. The study, online in the journal “Neuropsychologia,” offers great insight into treating and caring for people with the most common form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by a general, progressive decline in cognitive function that usually first presents as impaired memory. How fast one’s ability to think and remember declines depends on many factors, and not all patients will suffer the same loss of cognitive function.
The same basic reason why we can remember lyrics to songs from 25 years ago is applied here in this study. To see if music could help the patients learn new information, researchers presented Alzheimer’s patients and healthy controls with either the words spoken, or the lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment (along with the printed lyrics on a computer screen). Everyone visually saw the lyrics to 40 songs. Twenty of the song lyrics were accompanied by music, while 20 were accompanied by their spoken recording.
After each session, people were asked if they were familiar with the song they had just heard. Researchers found accuracy was greater when the words were sung rather than when they were simply spoken. This held true not for the healthy controls, but specifically for the Alzheimer’s patients.
The results confirm the belief that patients with dementia perform better on memory tasks when words were sung rather than spoken. This runs with the idea that music helps us learn. But what doesn’t run with that idea is why the healthy people did not have the same benefit with the music. They were just as good at remembering the spoken words.
What this might mean is that a brain afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease has major difference in encoding information and retrieving that information. When the brain processes music, it is firing a complex network of neurons in all areas of the brain. When an Alzheimer’s patient processes at a slower rate, it could mean that music and song could trigger a more involved process of taking in information.
It could mean that, if you have an Alzheimer’s patient in the family, it might be time to get creative with song if you want him or her to remember what you just said tomorrow or next week.