Listening to music with personal meaning may help ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Published: 12th November, 2021 at 15:40

Putting on their favourite playlist may help kickstart the brains of patients with dementia.

Whether it’s a dance floor banger or a more intimate slow jam, everyone has their go-to tune that they listen to to bring back fond memories.

Now, researchers at the University of Toronto have found that listening to these nostalgic tunes can help to boost the brain function in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease.

The finding opens the door for music-based interventions for people with dementia, the researchers say.

“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia – musicians and non-musicians alike.”

In a small study of 14 that included eight musicians and four non-musicians, the team played a curated playlist of chosen tunes to participants for one hour a day for three weeks and along with random tunes that had no personal meaning.

They then used functional MRI scanning before and after the listening period to determine changes to brain function and structure – particularly in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control centre where deep cognitive processes occur.

“Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” said Corinne Fischer, lead author, associate professor in the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date. While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualised and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”

With new music, the particpants' brain activity was largely confined to the auditory cortex. But with long-known music the activity fired in the prefrontal cortex – a sign of cognitive engagement.

There was also a subtle difference in the brains of those that played instruments and those that didn’t.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” said Thaut. “It’s simple: keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favourite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you. Make that your brain gym.”


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.