Music and Memory

  • By Rebecca Cheung
  • Posted 09.30.10
  • NOVA

Slowly, inevitably, Alzheimer's disease robs a person of profound memories, like the names and faces of loved ones. Right now, there's no cure. But one researcher thinks he may have found a way to help mitigate the effects of the disease—using music. Listen in to learn how.


Can music help diminish the crippling symptoms of Alzheimer's disease?


Music and Memory

Posted September 30, 2010

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

Slowly, inevitably, Alzehimer's disease robs a person of their memories. Not just everyday memories--like where to find keys or a wallet--but more profound ones, like the names and faces of loved ones. Right now, there's no cure. But one researcher thinks he may have found a way to help mitigate the effects of the disease. He says the answer is in music.

In this podcast, NOVA's Rebecca Cheung looks into the story.

REBECCA CHEUNG: From learning the letters of the alphabet to the names of states, music plays a well known role in helping us remember new information.

BRANDON ALLY: "We know the benefit of musical mnemonics in everyday life. Even as children we learn new information like state capitals in song. So we know there is a benefit in song."

REBECCA CHEUNG: That's Dr. Brandon Ally from Vanderbilt University. He studies how Alzheimer's affects memory, and says that music could help patients cope with the disease. In Alzheimer's, the pathways in the brain that allow us to retrieve memories become blocked or tangled. But since music stimulates a lot of different parts of the brain, it may help people with the disease work around these damaged areas.

BRANDON ALLY: "The brain has been known to rework and re-network itself. Our thought is that Alzheimer's disease targets particular areas and perhaps music can help by engaging other areas to compensate for those areas that may have been affected."

[clicking keys on keyboard] NICK SIMMONS-STERN: I'll just wait for it to get settled...

REBECCA CHEUNG: Nicholas Simmon-Stern is a student in Dr. Ally's lab. He helped design experiments to see if music could enhance memory in people with Alzheimer's.

NICK SIMMONS-STERN: So this is a study that looks at your memory for music. And if you don't have any questions, we'll get going...

REBECCA CHEUNG: With his laptop, Nick visited the homes of adults with early onset Alzheimer's to find out whether music could enhance their ability to remember information they'd seen before, in this case, lyrics of children's songs.

NICK SIMMONS-STERN: So I set them up in front of a computer screen. I would read the instructions that go something like this: you're about to see a series of lyrics to children's songs. Some of the lyrics will be accompanied by a sung recording and some will be accompanied by a spoken recording. Your task is to remember those lyrics as best as you can...

REBECCA CHEUNG: Nick specifically chose songs that weren't well known and he was also careful to weed out tunes that the participants had heard before.

He wanted to see whether adults with Alzheimer's could remember new, unfamiliar songs better if they were sung with music, rather than just recited.

NICK SIMMONS-STERN: For about 25 minutes they'll sit in front of the computer screen with the headphones on and listen to children's songs. During the study phase, they'll hear songs, twenty would be sung [AUDIO OF SUNG SONG] and 20 would be spoken [AUDIO OF SPOKEN SONG].

REBECCA CHEUNG: After hearing these songs, Nick gave the participants a test. They would see the lyrics to 80 songs on the computer screen.

NICK SIMMONS-STERN: Of the 80 songs, 20 were studied sung, 20 were studied spoken and 40 they haven't seen before. We asked them whether they had seen the song before in the study phase.

REBECCA CHEUNG: After analyzing the results, the lab found that adults with early onset Alzheimer's could recognize songs better when they were sung rather than spoken.

Dr. Ally thinks this could have big implications for treating patients.

BRANDON ALLY: This is just the beginning. We could help them with their medication regiments, just telling them what pills to take and what times to take it, remembering grandchildren's names, and faces—coming up with a number of different applications could be endless.

REBECCA CHEUNG: Although these findings look promising, Ally's team is quick to note that the study didn't show that patients suffering from Alzheimer's could create new memories that they could recall on their own. It simply showed that they could better recognize information they had seen before if it was presented to them in a song.

But Nick Simmons-Stern thinks even that might be a step in the right direction.

NICK SIMMONS-STERN: "Even if we could make a song that said, "take the red pill at nine in the morning and the green pill at 10," and it was perfectly melodic and a beautiful song, what we found in this study is that we could show them the lyrics to that song later and they could remember it better if it was sung to them. That's very different than relying on them to remember when to take their medicine, or to even remember what the words of the song were. We have a lot of work to do"

REBECCA CHEUNG: For NOVA, I'm Rebecca Cheung.



Produced by
Rebecca Cheung
Edited by
David Levin


(elderly man)

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