Personalized Playlists Could Lessen Alzheimer's Symptoms

A new study suggests that personalized musical playlists may make caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's that much easier. 

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- Posted on May 25, 2018

Personalized Playlists Could Lessen Alzheimer's Symptoms

Music might be the secret weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

According to a recent study published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease, scientists have discovered that personalized playlists can tap into regions of the brain normally untouched by the degenerative diseases and may offer a new way to cope with anxiety, depression, and agitation in Alzheimer’s patients.

Researchers chose 17 patients with Alzheimer’s-related dementia and had them listen to personalized musical playlists that contained clips of songs that held individual meaning to each test subject. An MRI scan of each patient showed that listening to music that held some sort of significance to the patient activated regions in the brain that weren’t triggered by generic background music.

In other words, songs that the patients recognized, enjoyed, or heard before they were diagnosed with the disease seemed to stimulate more brain activity than music that held no value. Even after the music had stopped playing, patients exhibited substantial “functional connectivity.”

“We don’t know how long this effect lasts, but it looks like it may be more than just stimulating the attention network," Jeff Anderson, an author of the study and an associate professor of radiology at the University of Utah Health, said in a university news release. "It may be able to get different regions of the brain talking to each other. It’s like a trigger stimulating the brain.” 

The study was inspired by a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. The film explored the link between music and brain activity in Alzheimer’s patients, with filmmakers interviewing people afflicted with the disease and showing how music therapy helped to reduce agitation and improve their mood.

“What our study was designed to do was not necessarily test whether music has an effect on therapy but to look at the mechanism of action in the brain,” Anderson said. “Some of the hype that surrounds how music affects dementia patients really hasn’t had the benefit of rigorous science backing up exactly how it might work or why it might work or under what circumstances.”

The link between music and Alzheimer’s has been talked about in caregiving communities for years, but this latest study shows science is beginning to catch on to the fact that music may be a key factor in improving the lives of those dealing with the illness. The National Institutes of Health has partnered with the Kennedy Center to advocate for additional research into the relationship between music therapy and Alzheimer’s to see what kinds of therapy models might benefit those living with dementia and other memory-degenerative diseases.

Though it should be made clear that music is not the “cure” for Alzheimer’s, Anderson is hopeful that the results of this new study might help the caregiving community to better treat its patients.

“Playing music is not going to cure Alzheimer’s disease, but it helps,” he said. “If you have a patient who is severely affected, and they need less anxiety medication and [less] medication for depression or their attention improves, those gains can be very meaningful.”

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