Personalized Music Activates Regions of the Brain Spared By Alzheimer’s

There is something special about music and its ability to connect with the human mind. It can transport us through time, and in many ways, acts as a natural reward.

Music has also been a hot topic of conversation within the Alzheimer’s community, helping patients connect with the world around them.

Study Finds an ‘Island of Remembrance’ Spared From Alzheimer’s

Researchers from the University of Utah were interested in helping dementia patients reduce feelings of anxiety. More specifically, they wanted to study the effects of music-based therapy on the salience network of the brain. This network is a collection of brain regions.

While studying dementia patients, one of the contributing authors stated, “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.” In turn, this could help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, and agitation.

Over the course of three weeks, the researchers worked with patients and their caregivers. They helped the participants select songs that were meaningful to them and then loaded their playlist onto a portable media player. The researchers then scanned the brains of these patients, focusing on the areas that lit up while listening to 20-second snippets of music in comparison to silence.

The patients listened to a total of eight clips from their collection, as well as eight moments of silence. What they found, was that while listening to music, the brain was activated. This allowed whole brain areas to communicate. Based on these MRI scans, it was shown that each patient’s personal soundtrack activated:

  • The visual network
  • The salience network
  • The executive network
  • The cerebellar and corticocerebellar network

All of the above regions showed significantly higher functional connectivity. This led to the conclusion that personalized music can act as an alternative form of communication. Since language is affected in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, music can provide a sense of comfort. This is especially true for patients who are rapidly losing touch with their surrounding environment.

To summarize

Personalized music has the ability to activate numerous brain regions, tapping into the salience network. As a caregiver, playing a meaningful playlist can allow patients with dementia to “come alive” while reducing feelings of agitation.

However, since the sample size was fairly small (n= 17), the researchers stated that these results are not conclusive. Also, each patient only participated in one single imaging session. At this time, it still remains unclear if these changes influence long-term connectivity.

Although music is not a cure for Alzheimer’s, it has shown to offer positive effects time and time again. This form of therapy could make symptoms more manageable while improving a patient’s quality of life. It could also reduce healthcare costs.

The Alzheimer’s Society Music Project

Although this study was unique, it is not the first to identify the positive connection between music and dementia. That is why the Alzheimer’s Society Music Project was developed. The evidence is overwhelming and the beneficial effects of music are truly heartwarming.

Those participating in the project receive one iPod + charging accessory. As well as one set of over-the-ear headphones and a supportive music setup. This is provided to eligible families at no cost. If you would like to register, you can do so here. To date, more than 4,800 portable devices have been distributed. You also have the option to volunteer or donate.

More Information

The research on music’s ability to “awaken” patients with Alzheimer’s provides hope for patients and their caregivers. If you have not yet seen Alive Inside, it is certainly worth a watch. This documentary displays music’s ability to not only help overcome memory loss but also help patients experience a sense of self.

Here at BrainTest, we provide a scientifically-validated app to help detect the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive impairments. Additionally, we are also a source of educational information on brain health. We have covered the impact music can have on patients in the past and invite you to read more on this topic here:

University of Utah Health. (2018, April 28). Music activates regions of the brain spared by Alzheimer’s disease. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 1, 2018 from

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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