Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia are debilitating conditions that are difficult for not only the affected individual but also their loved ones. As the brain gradually deteriorates, people with Dementia can become increasingly disoriented and anxious. The idea of losing all of your memories is a terrifying concept, but researchers have learned that some of those memories are safe. It turns out that while all others may eventually be lost, people with Alzheimer’s or Dementia don’t completely lose their memories of music.
Memories of Music and Your Brain
Have you ever heard a song that you really enjoy and experience a physical reaction, like chills, or what feels like a tingling sensation in your brain or your scalp, as you listened to it? That physical response is thanks to the salience network of your brain .
When you listen to a piece of music that you particularly love, your brain has what’s called an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR. This little buzz is like a natural reward for your brain . It is widely reported to be accompanied by feelings of relaxation and well-being. Whispering, crisp sounds, and slow movements have also been used to achieve ASMR .
ASMR and Alzheimer’s
New research is emerging that is connecting ASMR with Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to a study published in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, the part of your brain that is responsible for ASMR is not affected by Alzheimer’s. In fact, the authors of the study found that music actually has the power to bring an Alzheimer’s patient back to normalcy, even if only temporarily.
Jeff Anderson, MD, Ph.D., associate professor in radiology at the University of Utah Health, explained that people with Dementia are confronted with a world that is unfamiliar to them, which can lead to a great deal of anxiety.
“We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning,” he said .
Previous research has been done to demonstrate the effect that a personalized music program can have on Dementia patients, and this new research now gives us insight into exactly how and why music can have these beneficial effects.
The study found that participants who listened to preferred music showed specific activation of the supplementary motor area of the brain. This region of the brain has been associated with memory for familiar music, and generally seems to be unaffected by Alzheimer’s and Dementia. They also found that activating this area resulted in the activation of neighboring areas of the brain, indicating that activating the brain’s salience network may improve the synchronization of the brain as a whole .
How Music Can Help Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients
Anderson highlights the increasing prevalence of diseases in our society, and that there is a need for better treatment and care for Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients.
“In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max. No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life,” he says .
Music has been shown to be beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients no matter what stage of the disease they are in. It can improve their mood and sleep patterns, by actually increasing their levels of melatonin. It can also help to increase their social interaction, and help them to relax [7,8].
In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, music can provide loved ones with an opportunity to connect with the patient, and may even get a response out of them . At the very least, playing familiar music for someone in the late stages of the disease can have a profound calming effect on them. Patients with late-stage Alzheimer’s and Dementia are often restless and uncomfortable, so finding ways to help them calm down and relax can greatly improve their quality of life .
A Stepping Stone to Further Study
Norman Foster, MD, Director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care and Imaging Research at U of U Health and senior author on the paper, emphasizes the significance of his research but also recognizes its limitations.
“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,” he explained. “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.” 
The study used a very small sample size, and only one single imaging session for each patient, so no absolute conclusions can be made just yet. More research is needed to determine exactly how far-reaching the effects observed in the study are, and whether or not they enhance neural activation and connectivity for the long term .
The researchers want to be clear that in no way are they suggesting that music could be a cure for Alzheimer’s or Dementia, but it could improve care, decrease costs, and improve a patient’s quality of life .
- “MUSIC ACTIVATES REGIONS OF THE BRAIN SPARED BY ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE.” Health Care. Stacy W. Kish. April 2018.
- “Study: Memories of music cannot be lost to Alzheimer’s and dementia.” Big Think. Ned Dymoke. April 29, 2018.
- “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR): a flow-like mental state.” Peerj. Emma L. Barratt, Nick J. Davis. March 26, 2015.
- “More than a feeling: Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is characterized by reliable changes in affect and physiology.” NCBI. Giulia Lara Poerio, et al. June 2018.
- “Increased Functional Connectivity After Listening to Favored Music in Adults With Alzheimer Dementia.” Springer. J. B. King, et al. May 7, 2018.
- “How Music Therapy Can Benefit Alzheimer’s Patients.” Very Well Health. Esther Heerema, MSW . January 11, 2020.
- “Music therapy increases serum melatonin levels in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.” NCBI. A M Kumar et al. November 1999.
- “Art and Music.” ALZ