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Personalized Music Playlist Could Reduce Patients' Symptoms

Meaningful music can help relatives and carers communicate with patients who have Alzheimer's disease. Music could make the symptoms of Alzheimer's more manageable and improve quality of life.

A personalized music playlist really could reduce dementia patients' symptoms, according to new research. Hearing favorite songs relieves anxiety, depression and agitation and also improves balance and thinking, say scientists.

It boosts areas of grey matter that never stop functioning, even in Alzheimer's and provides a knock on effect for neighboring neurons, the study shows.

Known as the brain's 'salience network', it is the reason songs from our past evoke such vivid memories.

Surprisingly, this region also remains an 'island of remembrance' that is spared from the ravages of Alzheimer's, say the US team.

Now they are developing music based therapies to help alleviate the major symptoms.

The power of music, including singing, to unlock memories and kick start neurons is an increasingly key feature of dementia care.

It seems to reach parts of the damaged brain in ways other forms of communication cannot.

Professor Jeff Anderson, of the University of Utah, said: "People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

The system of interconnected neurons are triggered by certain stimuli deserving of our attention - such as a song that transports us back in time and space.

You can thank it for those chills we get listening to a particularly moving piece, said the researchers.

The study published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease follows previous work that found a personalized music program improved dementia patients' mood.

It went further by examining a mechanism that activates the 'attentional network' in the salience region - offer a new way to approach sufferers' anxiety, depression and agitation.

Activation of neighboring neurons may also open the door to delaying their memory and confusion getting worse.

For three weeks, the researchers helped participants select meaningful songs and trained the patient and caregiver on how to use a portable media player loaded with a self-selected collection of music.

First author Jace King, a graduate student at Utah's Brain Network Lab, said: "When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive. Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality."

Using functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), her team identified areas of grey matter that lit up as they listened to eight 20 second clips of their favorites played either normally, or in reverse.

The 17 men and women, aged between 65 and 77, were also monitored during eight blocks of silence. By comparing each scan, the researchers found music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate.

By listening to the personal soundtrack connectivity between neurons improved significantly in areas all over the brain.

These included the visual network, the salience network, the executive network that helps us plan and organize and the cerebellar network that controls coordination and balance.

Senior author Prof Norman Foster, director of the University's Centre for Alzheimer's Care, said: "This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer's disease.

"Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment."

The researchers said studies involving larger numbers of patients followed over a longer period of time are now needed to verify whether the results are lasting. Added Prof Anderson: "In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max.

"No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient's quality of life."

Earlier this year the UK's International Longevity Center, which has set up a Commission on Dementia and Music, presented a study to the House of Lords that found music 'kick starts' patients' memories.

Chief Baroness Sally Greengross told them regions of the brain associated with music memory may overlap with regions that are left relatively unscathed by dementia.

She said: "People with dementia have largely been denied the power of meaningful music. They often live in a silent world yet music can bring a person back to life."

Try playing some of these songs for your loved one, either through a speaker system or headphones, and see how they respond. Make sure the volume isn’t too loud, and be sure to avoid commercial interruption that may confuse them. Look for signs of reduced agitation, and encourage singing, clapping or dancing to add to the enjoyment!

Suggested Playlist For Dementia

  • “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong

  • “Singing in the Rain” performed by Gene Kelly

  • “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

  • “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline

  • “America the Beautiful” performed by Ray Charles

  • “New York, New York” performed by Frank Sinatra

  • “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” by Burt Bacharach

  • “Amazing Grace” performed by Celtic Women

  • “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell

  • “Canon In D” composed by J. Pachabel

  • “Song for my Father” by Sarah McLauchlan

  • “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman

  • “Hey There” by Rosemary Clooney

  • “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by Judy Garland

  • “You Are My Sunshine” by Alan O’Bryant

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