The Brain, Alzheimer’s and Music

When you’re listening intently to a piece of music, a unique part of your brain responds with something called the Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). This response has been equated to feeling like a tingling in your brain, or a type of natural high.

“It turns out that ASMR is pretty special,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “The part of our brains that is responsible for ASMR also assesses and catalogs music, forms emotional responses to it, and – surprisingly — appears to be a natural defense against Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

Caretakers of those with Alzheimer’s and dementia have frequently reported that music seems to lift people out of the confusion and fog of the disease and bring them back (albeit temporarily) to normality. This phenomenon has been observed numerous times but is only recently being studied.

How does Alzheimer’s disease affect the brain? We asked Leanne O’Neil. As Alzheimer’s progresses, brain tissue begins to harden, forming an insoluble plaque called Amyloid between brain neurons. As the disease continues, more and more brain tissue hardens and shrinks. This is why memories, faces, and even a basic sense of self can be lost or forgotten.”

However, according to The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, the part of your brain responsible for ASMR is not damaged by Alzheimer’s.

Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor in Radiology at the University of Utah Health and contributing author on the study, says these physical results surprised him. Alzheimer’s disease and dementia attacks the entire brain, little by little, but not this specific area. More research is needed to find out why. In the meantime, his information is already being used by those who care for dementia patients.

“No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease,” cautions Dr. Anderson, “but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life.”

Music may also be beneficial to mood and sleep patterns for those with Alzheimer’s. A study published in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine was conducted with male residents with Alzheimer’s at a nursing home. The men participated in music therapy five times a week for four weeks. Following the four weeks, their melatonin levels (the hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles) were tested and had significantly increased—and remained elevated even six weeks after the music therapy was over.

Therapists also noted that the men demonstrated an improved ability to learn new songs and lyrics, increased their social interaction, and appeared to be more relaxed and calm.

In the later stages of Alzheimer’s, music is often used as a way to connect with family members and evoke a response – especially when a patient has stopped communicating. Familiar music may be able to calm a restless Alzheimer’s patient in the end stages of life. Some people with severe Alzheimer’s will mouth the words of a familiar song upon hearing it, and visibly relax and rest with the music. Our daughter witnessed this while playing the piano at a care center.

“The brain is an amazingly complicated organ and full of surprises, remarks O’Neil. “I am definitely in the right field of work, as I find myself endlessly fascinated by all the new brain research and technology available.” 

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