How Music Affects Memory in Those with Dementia

Over the past two decades, a substantial body of research has demonstrated that music in all its forms arouses, stimulates, and organizes many areas of the brain. “Songs of personal meaning stimulate memories, even for people who have trouble accessing their memories, because of the various ways networks that form information in the brain get recruited,” says Concetta Tomaino, DA, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in New York City. “Imaging studies have shown that there is an area of convergence in the medial prefrontal cortex [a region that holds onto and retrieves memories] that lights up in the brain when we hear music that’s important to us.

“Music that’s personal has many elements that help us recall information. It affects us emotionally, it connects us to people and places, and we tend to relive it and listen to it many times throughout our lives, which strengthens those connections even more,” Dr. Tomaino says.

In a study published in Brain in 2015, European researchers examined a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease by using brain imaging technologies and compared them with young, healthy participants. The scientists found that the areas of the brain that encode musical memory show very little damage in Alzheimer’s.

And researchers at the University of Utah, who published their results in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2019, found that playing personally meaningful music for people with Alzheimer’s disease stimulated those areas of the brain and improved mood. “We had patients and their families identify music they liked. Then we used an MP3 player to develop a playlist and asked them to listen to it over several weeks,” says Norman L. Foster, MD, FAAN, professor of neurology at the University of Utah and one of the lead authors of the study. They then used functional MRIs to see which regions of the brain were activated when patients listened to their favorite music.

They found that several key regions of the brain—including the visual network, the salience network (regions that decide which stimuli deserve our attention), the executive network (which performs high-level cognitive tasks such as reasoning and problem-solving), and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs (for visual attention and working memory)—showed significantly higher-level functional connections. “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,” Dr. Foster says.

That kind of reconnection produces tangible results. Music & Memory, a nonprofit organization in Mineola, NY, helps nursing homes and family caregivers create and manage playlists. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association in March 2020 found that the Music & Memory program significantly reduced the need for anti-anxiety, antipsychotic, and antidepressant medications in nursing home residents. It also led to significant declines in aggressive behavior, depressive symptoms, pain, and falls.


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15 responses to “How Music Affects Memory in Those with Dementia

  1. I was born to very musical parents and all my life, while I do not play an instrument, I do have a strong sense of rhythm and find it impossible not to share in the beat.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Tony. I think I will get that one as I have Amazon Prime plus I always bike with my iPhone on me for safety reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And it has now been delivered. But how on earth do I connect it. I have my Bluetooth turned on on my iPhone but just can’t fathom the Quick Start Guide for the JBL? Help!


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