Powerful Effects of Music: Unlocking Memories and Stimulating the Brain


How Music Helps Unlock Memories and Improve Quality of Life for Dementia Patients – Research by Dr Mercola 2017

Music can have a powerfully therapeutic effect on patients with dementia, helping them recall otherwise irretrievable memories, regain a sense of self and reconnect with family members over shared memories

Research revealed that many dementia patients who listen to their favourite music require less psychotropic medication to control their behaviour.

Brian’s Story

What is happening here?

Music activates several brain areas, including the amygdala, which is involved in the processing of emotion, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in the retrieval of both long- and short-term memories.

Music is a potent form of communication. It conveys emotion — oftentimes far more effectively than words alone. When you hear music, many areas of your brain light up, including your nucleus accumbens, a part of your brain that releases the feel-good chemical dopamine and is involved in forming expectations.

The amygdala, which is involved in the processing of emotion, and the prefrontal cortex, which makes abstract decision-making possible, are also activated.1 Certain hormones are also released. Oxytocin, for example, a bonding hormone released during interactions with loved ones, is released when singing together.2

Many evolutionary biologists believe music is fundamental in our ability to function as humans and hold together large communities of people, as music is capable of producing oxytocin, i.e., bonding and sharing emotions, on a massive scale.

Over the past decade, researchers investigating treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s have discovered the benefits of music as therapy. The 2014 documentary, “Alive Inside” demonstrates the remarkable benefits music can have on patients with dementia.

Personalized Playlists Improve Behaviour and Reduce Medication Use

To evaluate the effects of the kind of music therapy featured in “Alive Inside,” researchers implemented the “Music & Memory” program3 in 98 nursing homes and compared the results with 98 nursing homes without the program.4,5,6

Endpoints evaluated included the discontinuation of antipsychotic and/or antianxiety medication, reductions in disruptive behaviour and improvement in mood. They found dementia patients who listened to music personalised to their tastes did in fact require less psychotropic medication to control their behavior. Over the course of six months:

  • Over 20% of patients receiving music therapy were able to discontinue their antipsychotic medication, compared to an average of 17.6% prior to the implementation of the program. In nursing homes without the music program, discontinuation rates remained stable
  • The proportion of residents with reduced dementia-related behavioural problems increased from 51% to 57%; behaviour problems in the comparison group remained unchanged

As reported by Reuters: “The individualized music program designed for nursing homes … didn’t improve mood problems, but patients who listened to music tailored to their tastes and memories did need less anti-anxiety and antipsychotic medication. Researchers found ‘Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias can result in aggressive or other difficult behaviours, which affect people’s lives and take a toll on their caregivers,’ said lead author Kali Thomas, an assistant professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. ‘We think that familiar music may have a calming or pleasurable effect and reduce the need for caregivers to use medications to control dementia behaviours’…”

A similar study called “Classical Connections,” commissioned by the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra is investigating the therapeutic benefits of live classical performances compared to recordings.8 Lead researcher Lori Sunshine, a music therapist, talks to the participants before and after each performance, and compares their reactions to recordings of the music.

Overall, it appears live performances have even greater benefits, in large part because of the social interaction that takes place. Interestingly, the benefits go far beyond mere improvements in mood and behaviour. It appears music has the ability to actually trigger or reactivate memory, and even helps improve physical mobility.

How Music Helps Reignite Memory

Some of music’s benefits appear to be rooted in its familiarity. That is, a person’s favourite music, or songs they associate with important events, can trigger a memory of the song’s lyrics, the related event and even the feelings and experience of it. The reason for this is that music strongly activates brain regions involved in memory, such as the amygdala — in a sense unlocking memories surrounding or associated with that particular piece of music.

“It brings upon all four quadrants of the brain to be activated. So all the neurons are being stimulated. The brain is enlivened and more activated. So, you’re more inclined to hear a person who can’t remember something, remember something,” Lori Sunshine explains.

Music also activates your medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region behind your forehead thought to be selectively involved in the retrieval of both long- and short-term memories.10 This is one of the last brain areas to atrophy among Alzheimer’s patients, which helps explain how music can help reactivate memories even in patients with Alzheimer’s, which is the most severe form of dementia.

As noted by Petr Janata, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California (UC) Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, who has mapped the brain activity of subjects as they listened to music:

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye … Now we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.”

In the video below, the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” explains how listening to familiar music may allow Alzheimer’s patients to access memories that have otherwise become inaccessible.

Regaining a Sense of Identity

The recollection of music can also help revive a dementia patient’s sense of identity, and help them reconnect with family members over shared memories. The success of the technique depends on nursing staff being able to figure out a patient’s musical preferences, which is why you may want to ask your aging relatives about their favorite songs now (or relay yours to your caregivers) just in case.

It’s also dependent on a person’s interest in music throughout life. You don’t have to be overly musical to appreciate music emotionally, as virtually everyone does, but as noted in the World Journal of Psychiatry: “Music therapy would not be appropriate for a person who did not have an appreciation for music prior to the onset of cognitive impairment. A positive correlation is expected between the degree of significance that music had in the person’s life prior to the onset of dementia and effectiveness of the intervention.”

To read Dr Mercola’s full research article click here https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2024/03/02/music-therapy-dementia-patients.aspx

Editor’s Note: This was published in an article, that was originally published June 8, 2017 by Dr Mercola.

Read More

Cognitive Benefits Of Live Music For Elderly Dementia Patients On South Coast
Lori Sunshine, a music therapist and the lead researcher in this study at from California Lutheran University, shares her findings. Read more.


Music Therapy in the Treatment of Dementia: A Review Article


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