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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Spring 2014

Music Can Penetrate the Fog of Alzheimer’s Disease

Can listening to music soothe an agitated patient with Alzheimer’s disease, or even unlock happy memories from better days? Although much of the evidence is anecdotal, there is plenty to suggest that songs can, at minimum, bring a smile to the face of a dementia patient.

Music and Alzheimer’s DiseaseAnd that is good enough for Joshua Grill, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment Development Program at UCLA’s Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. Dr. Grill is on a campaign to collect pre-owned iPods and MP3 players, iTunes gift cards, headphones and related items for Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes. The program is a partnership between the Easton Center and the national nonprofit organization Music & Memory, which provides music therapy to nursing homes in the Los Angeles area. Dr. Grill discusses the evidence for music’s benefits for dementia patients.

How much is known about music’s therapeutic potential for patients with Alzheimer’s disease?

Studies have found that music has the ability to uniquely activate the brain. One need look no further than a child learning the alphabet to see the power of musical melody in learning. Music clearly affects the brain differently from spoken word or a series of tones that don’t form a melody, and studies have even shown that it can activate pleasure and reward centers in the brain. Specifically thinking about music and dementia, there are many anecdotal reports of Alzheimer’s patients who are so amnestic they can’t remember their own family members, yet they retain the ability to recall, perform and, perhaps most important, enjoy music. In fact, one case report described a musician who was well into the course of dementia and could still learn new songs.

Given music’s power to evoke memories in all of us, is it possible it could have memory-related benefits for dementia patients?

There are a few studies to support music as a strategy to improve memory in patients with amnestic disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. One study suggested mild cognitive benefits in patients in a nursing home after group music therapy, including improved memory function. Another small study suggested that mild patients who listened to Vivaldi’s “Spring” movement from Four Seasons had improved autobiographical memories — memories from their own childhood, adult life and recent past. Unfortunately, however, most large, well-controlled studies looking specifically at memory have not found a benefit of music therapy. Still, there are many anecdotal reports of music unlocking happy memories in patients.

Music and Alzheimer’s Disease

Many dementia patients show behavioral symptoms that are difficult to control. Can music help there?

I think the evidence is more compelling for music’s effect on the behavioral symptoms. The longer someone has Alzheimer’s disease, the more likely he or she is to experience behavioral problems, including depression, apathy, agitation and frustration. These are some of the more challenging symptoms that patients and their caregivers and families face. If music can reduce those symptoms, that would be incredibly helpful. We know that the regions of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease are diffuse and increase in number and severity over time. But even late in the disease, music may be able to activate the circuits that remain intact and provide pleasure and improved mood. Studies have found that music therapy can reduce agitation and anxiety, decrease depression and improve quality of life. At the facility where we donated the first batch of iPods, staff reported that some patients were eating a whole meal or sleeping through the night for the first time in months after individualized music therapy.

Music and Alzheimer’s Disease

What inspired you to establish this program?

I was struck when I heard about what Music & Memory was doing. At our center we spend most of our time conducting research and running clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease, and we are very excited about where the field is going. We think we are on the cusp of having drugs that, for the first time, can actually slow the course of the disease. Unfortunately, though, right now we are not able to revert severely demented patients back to mild states. So while we are very excited about the future, we can’t and won’t leave behind the millions of people who have dementia now. They still need us, and their families still need us, and if there are ways we can help them, we will.

To make a tax-deductible donation of iPods and MP3 players, as well as related items, to the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA’s Tunes for Alzheimer’s Patients program, go to:

To view a video about UCLA’s Tunes for Alzheimer’s Patients program, go to:

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