Repeated Exposure to Music may Impact Alzheimer’s disease

The following is a guest post written by Drs. Corinne Fischer, Luis Fornazzari, Tom Schweizer, Michael Thaut, David Munoz, and Joseph Barfett

Over half a million Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and this number is expected to rise – exponentially – over the next 30 years.

To date, drug trials have not been successful in treating Alzheimer’s disease, and the approved drugs that have been administered show modest benefits to people living with AD. More worrisome is the fact that many people experience adverse effects to the prescribed drugs.

Responding to this, non-drug related interventions are growing in popularity. Insofar as they support pro-social behaviour and cognition, they help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Within the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging (CCNA), research teams have made strides through digital storytelling workshops that strengthen memories and communication in persons with dementia, have helped build cognitive resilience through ‘intelligent’ leisure activities, and are lowering the risk of dementia through the Brain Health Food guide.

In that same vein, music-based interventions are becoming increasingly popular to improve outcomes for people with dementia, including fostering social participation, being ‘in the moment,’ and overall enjoyment.

Research shows that long-term musicianship brings about brain changes and provides cognitive benefit to those who practice music frequently. Tied to this, music training may be able to improve the brain’s ability to compensate for damage and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

This remains an educated guess, however, where no study to date has investigated brain differences among musicians with Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-musicians. Research looking at the effect of music exposure on the brain in this population is also limited. In fact, no study has used neuroimaging techniques to determine if music-based interventions can influence brain connectivity in conjunction with behaviour and cognitive outcomes. Moreover, randomized controlled trials investigating the impact music has on Alzheimer’s disease have provided mixed results.

Working within the CCNA, our team has collaborated with numerous long-term care homes throughout Toronto, as well as the University of Toronto’s faculty of Music to help determine whether a three-week long music listening intervention we developed can (1) change brain connectivity in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and (2) whether musicianship can build resistance to cognitive damage.

In our program, each participant is given a curated music playlist to listen to every day for three weeks. Prior to participating, we ask each person about their music preferences and then load music they have known throughout their lifetime onto an easy-to-use MP3 player, so that they can listen to the music at home. We also collect behavioural and cognitive measures, as well as MRI data at baseline, and then repeat these measures after the three-week music intervention is completed. It is worth noting that we play long-known and unknown music to each participant when they are receiving their MRI scan, so that we can look at the brain areas involved in long-known music listening.

Through our study, we hope to show that art and music can be used as a therapeutic method to improve quality of life for people living with dementia and their care partners. By demonstrating that the retrieval of long-known music is a unique and whole brain process, we can provide evidence as to why musical memory may be spared in Alzheimer’s disease while autobiographical and semantic memory become severely compromised. Finally, we hope to provide empirical evidence that demonstrates life-long music training can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information about our study, please contact Melissa Leggieri: leggierim@smh.ca

The views and opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the authors (individual CCNA scientists) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging and its partner organizations.