Ipods and Alzheimer's patients

Dr. Tomaino has studied the therapeutic effects of music for over 30 years. She is leading a program to give Alzheimer's patients iPods loaded with customized playlists, so they can receive music therapy in their own homes. "If someone loved opera or classical or jazz or religious music, or if they sang and danced when the family got together, we can recreate that music and help them relive those experiences," she says.

The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function has suggestions for songs by era and genre on its Web site, www.imnf.org. There is also an option to send an iPod to the institute, after filling out a questionnaire about the patient's musical tastes, and the institute will program a customized iPod for them. The institute is also asking people to donate old iPods to send to Alzheimer's patients who can't afford their own.

Dr. Tomaino led a study in which 45 patients with mid- to late-stage dementia received one hour of personalized music therapy, three times a week, for 10 months. Their scores on a cognitive-function test improved by 50%.

Neuroscientists are still studying the brain mechanisms that explain how music connects with the mind and body. Music uses many brain functions, including: listening, language, and movement. Because of this, there isn't a single center for music in the brain; many parts are involved. However, Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist, has found an area of the brain (the medial prefrontal cortex) that seems to be a hub for music, memory and emotions.

In February, Dr. Janata led a study in which 13 students listened to random songs from "top 100" charts from years when they were 8 to 18 years old. While the students listened to the songs, Dr. Janata recorded their brain activity with fMRI. Unfamiliar songs stimulated the auditory processing parts of the brain; songs that produced emotional reactions stimulated other areas; songs that brought up specific personal memories produced especially strong activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.

Dr. Janata  says that "activating memories with music cannot reverse or cure neurological diseases like dementia. But playing familiar music frequently can significantly improve a patient's mood, alertness and quality of life."

There is also a downside to this. Certain songs might evoke unhappy memories. "If family members don't know what music would be appropriate, think in generalizations. If a parent loved to go dancing in their teens, picking the most popular songs from that era tends to be pretty safe." Dr. Tomaino says. Music from a person's teenage years is particularly evocative of memories.

Source: Beck, Melinda. "A Key for Unlocking Memories." Wall Street Journal Health. 16 Nov 2009.