Music Activates Regions of the Brain Spared by Alzheimer’s

Ever get chills listening to a Above & Beyond or other moving pieces of music? Of course you do. Well, you can thank the salience network of the brain for that emotional jolt. Surprisingly, this region also remains an island of remembrance spared from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Data provided by the Alzheimer’s Association indicate that 5.7 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s. Sadly, this number expects to increase to 14 million diagnosed cases by 2050.

In Alzheimer’s, the brain becomes progressively damaged, leading to severe memory loss and impairment of many other brain functions. These can include day-to-day decision-making, self-care, and the use of language.

However, a study conducted by the researchers of the University of Utah Health examined the salience region of the brain to develop music-based treatments to help alleviate anxiety in patients with dementia.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” Said Jeff Anderson, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor in Radiology at U of U Health and contributing author on the study.  “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning,” he added.

Using a functional MRI, the researchers scanned the patients to image the regions of the brain that lit up when they listened to 20-second clips of music versus silence. They played eight clips of music from the patient’s music collection. Then eight clips of the same music played in reverse and eight blocks of silence. The researchers compared the images from each scan.

The researchers found that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate. By listening to the personal soundtrack, the visual network, the salience network, the executive network, and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs, all showed significantly higher functional connectivity.

However, these results are by no means conclusive. The researchers note the small sample size, which was only 17 participants for this study. In addition, the study only included a single imaging session for each patient. It remains unclear whether the effects identified in this study persist beyond a brief period of stimulation or whether other areas of memory or mood are enhanced by changes in neural activation and connectivity for the long term.

Still, exposing people to calming stimuli, such as that of trance music, sounds pretty beneficial to me.