Listening to music with personal meaning may help ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease © Getty Images

Listening to music with personal meaning may help ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Putting on their favourite playlist may help kickstart the brains of patients with dementia.

Whether it’s a dance floor banger or a more intimate slow jam, everyone has their go-to tune that they listen to to bring back fond memories.

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Now, researchers at the University of Toronto have found that listening to these nostalgic tunes can help to boost the brain function in patients with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease.

The finding opens the door for music-based interventions for people with dementia, the researchers say.

“We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music – that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like the song they danced to at their wedding – stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning,” said Prof Michael Thaut, senior author of the study, director of U of T’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory.

“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia – musicians and non-musicians alike.”

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In a small study of 14 that included eight musicians and four non-musicians, the team played a curated playlist of chosen tunes to participants for one hour a day for three weeks and along with random tunes that had no personal meaning.

They then used functional MRI scanning before and after the listening period to determine changes to brain function and structure – particularly in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control centre where deep cognitive processes occur.

“Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” said Corinne Fischer, lead author, associate professor in the department of psychiatry in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

“Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date. While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualised and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”

With new music, the particpants’ brain activity was largely confined to the auditory cortex. But with long-known music the activity fired in the prefrontal cortex – a sign of cognitive engagement.

There was also a subtle difference in the brains of those that played instruments and those that didn’t.

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“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” said Thaut. “It’s simple: keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favourite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you. Make that your brain gym.”