Music was my first love…

New research illustrates the potential for music therapy for people with Alzheimer’s.

We’re all aware of the power of music – be that its ability to make you move your feet, shed a few tears, or take you back to the first time you ever heard a song. This power is being harnessed by music therapists like Alaine Reschke-Hernández to help patients with Alzheimer’s-type dementia (AD) – a neurodegenerative condition which often results in severe memory loss.

Image Credit: PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Alongside a team of neuroscientists at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Reschke-Hernández set out to investigate a phenomenon that she was already familiar with in her own practice – AD patients responding with strong emotions after hearing certain music.  Participants in the study – 20 people with AD and 19 healthy older adults – were asked to self-select songs which evoked either sadness or happiness, and listen to them for 4.5 minutes. These participants were then assessed on the strength and duration of the emotional response before being asked whether they remembered listening to music or not. Interestingly, although the AD participants had an impaired memory of the music listening event, both sets of participants showed emotion (both for the positive and for the negative song conditions) lasting up to 20 minutes. These intriguing results suggest that an emotional response to music is a separate neural mechanism to everyday fact recall, such as remembering listening to music.

“an emotional response to music is a separate neural mechanism to everyday fact recall”

This phenomenon was something that I was fortunate enough to experience first hand over summer, when working in a care home over the first lockdown. One resident springs to mind: an elderly lady, suffering from acute AD. She was very often confused, to the point of struggling to recall whether she had eaten that day, where she was born, and where she was living. As you can imagine, this often led to distress, and it was difficult to have a coherent conversation. One slow afternoon, we (members of staff) decided to make use of the smart TVs and put on a recording of Perry Como (a 30s crooner) singing “And I Love You So”. You can imagine our delight when this particular resident’s face lit up with a massive smile, and she started singing along. Not only did she remember the lyrics, but she then proceeded to tell us, with amazing lucidity, about her father, and how much he used to love singing along to Como’s classics. Needless to say, there was a bit of a lump in my throat. 

Image Credit:  Lorenzo Spoleti via Unsplash

“music therapy could help people with dementia “have a long-lasting emotional response, or better emotional regulation””

This experience, for me, really illustrates the therapeutic potential of the research carried out by Reschke-Hernández and her colleagues. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, depression is more common in people with dementia, and often hard to treat with antidepressants. Therefore, therapies such as the use of music as suggested by Reschke-Hernández and colleagues could have profound impacts on the mental wellbeing of many people suffering with AD around the world. According to Reschke-Hernández, music therapy could help people with dementia “have a long-lasting emotional response, or better emotional regulation”, which, as she went on to say in an interview for Science News, is fantastic. Dementia UK suggests that music therapy can also help with the social aspects of life – connecting with others, expressing ideas and feelings, facilitating physical activity and encouraging social interaction. As Claire Garebedian, a cellist researching the effects of live and recorded music in dementia at the University of Stirling, said in an interview for Age UK: “even when someone can no longer talk, music becomes an avenue for communication and engagement”. It is important to note that music therapy might not work for everyone, and should be used carefully. Whilst positive emotions can be elicited, the study also showed the same with negative emotions, and some memories can be very painful when dug up.

“even when someone can no longer talk, music becomes an avenue for communication and engagement”

Research such as that carried out by Reschke-Hernández and her colleagues could lead to breakthroughs for the wellbeing of people suffering from AD, and shows us the power of a resource that was right under our nose – music.

Written by Nathan Rockley and edited by Shona Richardson

Nathan Rockley is a 2nd Year Medical Sciences student

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