Jun 16, 2010

Music Boosts Memory in Alzheimer’s, Is this Why the Song Works

In this case I married pattern of behavior, with some singing (music), and a good positive attitude....

By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Music Boosts Memory in Alzheimer’s, Is this Why the Song Works

I wrote previously about how I sing to Dottie. Songs I make up. How I use these songs along with patterns to accomplish a goal. I wrote the following words in the article -- Alzheimer's and the Dreaded Bowel Movement:
I knew the solution to the dreaded bowel movement problem for years. I couldn't get my mother to cooperate. When she wouldn't cooperate, I would give up. At least three or four times over a two year period.

I was finally able to implement my solution for one simple reason -- I was learning new and better techniques as an Alzheimer's caregiver. I was figuring out how to make things happen through trial and error. I was marrying all of my ideas together and pulling out whatever tools I needed to get the job done.

In this case I married pattern of behavior, with some singing (music), and a good positive attitude. Throw in some good solid positive reinforcement and some good communication and you get a solution to a problem. You also need patience and intestinal fortitude. You develop these over time as part of the caregiving process.

Now I am reading new research by Brandon Ally that suggests music may also help people with dementia retain new information. Wow.
“One thing we do know about the way the brain processes music is that it’s more of a global process,” Ally says. “While the parts of the brain where we make memories — the medial temporal lobes like the hippocampus — are the first parts to be ravaged as Alzheimer’s develops, music pulls from the cortical and subcortical areas, which aren’t as damaged by the disease.”

My sister was shocked when I told her on the phone that I finally "convinced" my mother to drink prune juice after years of trying and failure. Joanne was here and saw my mother refusing to drink and calling the prune juice poison. It was only after I introduced the "prune juice song" that my mother starting drinking the juice every day and the dreaded Poop-E problem was solved.

I also have the pee song, the poop song, and a long list of songs soon to be number one hits.

Is singing the key to my success? One of the keys?

Well we are going to find out soon because I recently introduced the "walking song". For those of you that are following along, you will remember that I recently wrote that I am re-teaching my mother how to walk. It seems to be working.

Please read the article below carefully. This is a good example of what Max Wallack observed -- "more there."

This research convinces me that, we as, Alzheimer's caregivers can accomplish more then we imagine. It tells me there are useful tools being developed all over the country that will help improve the Alzheimer's patient -- Alzheimer's caregiver relationship.

And, to help us solve many of the problems that drive us "nuts".

I'll write in greater detail soon about how I use singing to get Dotty to follow my lead.


Music’s power to soothe or energize is well known, and there is good science behind the use of music to arouse dormant memories even in those whose minds are failing. Now the results of a recent BU study suggest that music may also help people with dementia retain new information, a finding with promising implications for the 5.3 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s.

According to researcher Brandon Ally, a School of Medicine assistant professor of neurology, Alzheimer’s patients who were put through a series of memory tests learned more lyrics when they were set to music rather than just spoken, while healthy elderly people remembered just as much and just as well with or without music. While the study was small — only 32 subjects — the results, described by Ally as stunning, could lead to a new way of helping Alzheimer’s patients remember things required for their well-being and maintaining their independence. For example, a simple ditty might help patients remember which medications to take when, says Ally, whose research focuses mainly on how memory deteriorates in healthy aging as well as in elderly people with dementia.

In the study, developed from an idea suggested by Nick Simmons-Stern, Ally’s summer research assistant, the BU team had a group of healthy elderly people and a group with Alzheimer’s view a series of simple song lyrics on a computer screen, first with the words being sung by a young woman, then with the words being spoken by the same woman, and finally with no accompanying sound at all. To make sure subjects would have no knowledge of the songs beforehand, Ally and Simmons-Stern, now a Yale undergraduate, used only children’s songs written in the last few years and did a random screening to be fairly certain the songs were outside elderly people’s frames of reference.

After seeing and hearing four-line selections from the 80 test lyrics, the subjects were asked if they recognized the lyrics. For those with Alzheimer’s, hearing the song sung significantly improved their recall; for people in the control group, the effect of hearing lyrics spoken or sung or merely appearing as text yielded the same result.

“A lot of groups have looked at how music unlocks past memories — a therapist may play music from the big band era to uncloud an octogenarian’s memories of the war,” says Ally. “But we were the first to show that Alzheimer’s patients can actually learn new information using music.” There have been studies of musicians with dementia who remembered tunes and how to play, but little else. These are what researchers call “procedural” memories, he says, like riding a bike.

Based at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center facility at the VA Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., Ally hopes the results of this and future studies will shed more light on how the aging brain processes music and how musical memory differs from verbal memory. “One thing we do know about the way the brain processes music is that it’s more of a global process,” he says. “While the parts of the brain where we make memories — the medial temporal lobes like the hippocampus — are the first parts to be ravaged as Alzheimer’s develops, music pulls from the cortical and subcortical areas, which aren’t as damaged by the disease.” As a result, neuroscientists believe that music may allow patients to code information using much more of the brain. Or it may be that music stimulates people and helps them pay more attention, he says, adding that even with healthy older adults, lack of focus plays a role in memory impairment. Whatever the mechanism, the therapeutic value of music is accepted by the medical establishment, and some forms of music therapy are covered by health insurance.

Ally hopes to repeat the study with a larger sample size, and further investigate why music seemed to have no effect on recognition of test information by healthy adults.

Ally and Simmons-Stern plan follow-up studies to refine the results, comparing rhyming lyrics with nonrhyming lyrics and comparing the effectiveness of different types of melodies. “I wasn’t expecting to find such a huge benefit to music and learning, and this is something people can use,” says Ally. There’s usually a long lag between study results and practical applications, but in this case “it was like a no-brainer,” he says. “People could use this technique tomorrow.”

http://www.bu.edu/today/node/11131

Susan Seligson at Boston University can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

Also, special thanks to Jenny Mackintosh at Boston University for sending us this information.

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The Neuroscience of Music and Alzheimer's



Bob DeMarco

Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room