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Music May Ease the Anxiety of Alzheimer’s

More good news on the music and Alzheimer’s front. Researchers report that music activates parts of the brain spared by Alzheimer’s disease and may be a good way to help ease the anxiety and agitation of the disease.

The researchers, from the University of Utah Health, found that music caused unique activation of a part of the brain known as the salience network, an area of the brain that makes music particularly moving and emotional. This part of the brain is also largely spared from the brain damage that occurs with Alzheimer’s disease.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” said study author Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, an associate professor in radiology at the University of Utah. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

The researchers say that music-based therapies may help to ease many of the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer’s, including agitation, anxiety, and depression, that can make life with the disease difficult — and a special challenge for caregivers. The findings were published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study looked at 17 men and women with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers had them select songs and music that were meaningful to them. “When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive,” said Jace King, a graduate student in the Brain Network Lab and the first author on the paper. “Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”

Over a three week period, the researchers then trained those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers on how to play a personalized playlist of music using a portable media player.

Using specialized MRI brain scans, the researchers found that areas in the salience network of the brain lit up and “communicated” with one another when they played 20-second clips of favorite music. The same areas did not light up when they listened to the same music played in reverse or no music. This clearly indicates that nerve cells of the salience network recognized the music specifically and were not just responding to random noise.

“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,” said Dr. Norman Foster, Director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care at the university and a study author. “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 authors note that the study was only on 17 people so was by no means definitive, but the findings suggest that music can indeed have benefits for those with dementia, and earlier research has supported the role of music in Alzheimer’s care.

Beloved melodies and favorite songs and lyrics are known to boost mood and ease stress, and a growing body of research suggests that music — like art, dance and other creative forms of therapy — can enhance enjoyment and self-esteem and enrich the lives of people with dementia. Caregivers, too, can get benefits. They felt less exhausted and overwhelmed, and their moods improved, earlier studies have shown.

It’s no surprise, then, that many senior care centers and Alzheimer’s support groups hold music and sing-along sessions in communities nationwide. And for those that don’t, integrating a music program into a community center, nursing home or your own home can be an invaluable addition to Alzheimer’s care, this and other studies suggest.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: K.G. Jones, M. Rollins, K. Macnamee, et al: The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, April 27, 2018

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