Science, Tech & Environment

The secret weapon in the fight against Alzheimer's might just be an iPod

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Alive Inside filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett with a Music & Memory participant.


Courtesy of BOND/360

A growing body of evidence indicates that giving Alzheimer’s patients an iPod filled with their favorite music can benefit them in profound ways.

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A new documentary, called Alive Inside, highlights this fascinating and often very moving phenomenon.

”Music can be a powerful tool for connecting elders to the people around them and for restoring a sense of self," says Dan Cohen, founder and executive director of the non-profit organization Music and Memory. “If a family member says, ‘I'm here, listen to me, I'm your spouse, I'm your daughter, I'm your son,’ they may not recognize you. But play music from their youth that has personal meaning and they'll awaken and engage and interact."

Oliver Sacks, a professor of neurology at NYU Medical Center and the author of many books about the brain, says he has seen this in hundreds of patients. “[They] don't have any direct access to their pasts, but music can act as a bridge,” he says. “Familiar music will often bring back the moment when they first heard the music and the people they saw.“

Unlike language, there is no one “music center” in the brain, Sacks explains: “When music is played, or imagined, many areas of the brain get activated. Some of them are hearing areas, some are visual areas, some are motor areas. Many are emotional areas.”

These areas of the brain aren't typically affected by Alzheimer’s or other memory loss conditions, Sacks says, because they are “concerned with procedure and performance. Essentially, music gets played in the brain — it's a performance.” And because so many different parts of the brain are involved, “it's almost impossible to lose music,” Sacks says. “It is very robust”.

Dan Cohen says his program is helping about 75 percent of patients who suffer from advanced dementia, and they continue trying to find ways to help the other 25 percent.

“We may not know that one song that will spark them,” Cohen says. “Maybe there's no family to ask. Of course, the person can't tell us what their musical preferences are, so it's a harder process to figure that out.”

Remarkaby, Cohen says, once a patient begins connecting emotionally and physically with music, there is a residual effect. Patients are often in a better, calmer mood for hours afterwards, making it less likely they will require "anti-psychotic" medication to keep them calm if they are agitated.

Music that has meaning for patients can vary widely, Cohen says — from hymns to rock to Big Band music from the 1940s. There does seem to be one constant: The rhythm of certain music often resonates, even with people who have sat slumped over in their chairs or lain in bed for years. Cohen says he sees this all the time.

“People will start to dance in their chairs,” he says. “They'll start to move. If somebody's really non-responsive ... their foot may just start going back and forth to the beat of the song. Families love this, because they want as much as possible to keep that person, as they knew them, alive as long as possible."

Oliver Sacks agrees. “Human beings cannot resist responding to the beat. You see this from earliest childhood — it's specifically human. I once mentioned this and a woman in the audience said, 'Now I know why I can't teach my dog to dance.'”

So if the benefits of playing music for elderly Alzheimers patients are so clear and overwhelming, why isn't it used in more nursing homes?

“Change comes slow,” Cohen says. “Nursing homes are very busy. ... There's no budget for this. The government does not reimburse this. They'll spend $1000 a month for an anti-depressant ... but a cheap $40-$50 music player? That's a heavy lift for a doctor to recommend.”

“The time is very overdue,” Sacks insists. “It needs to be as widely known as possible that music can be very powerful in a whole variety of conditions — and now with existing technology you can personalize it for everybody. It's not only just as often effective, but it’s about 20 times cheaper than medications."

This article is based on an interview that originally aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow.