Petr Janata, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis's Center for Mind and Brain, recently located an area of the brain—the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead—that seems to serve as a hub for music, memory and emotions.
In a study published online in the journal Cerebral Cortex in February, Dr. Janata had 13 UC Davis students listen to excerpts of 30 songs chosen randomly from "top 100" charts from years when they were 8 to 18 years old, while he recorded their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Songs that were unfamiliar evoked reactions in the auditory processing parts of the students' brains; those that elicited emotional reactions stimulated other brain areas. When songs conjured up a specific personal memory, there was particularly strong activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. That's where what Dr. Janata calls "a mental movie" seems to play in the mind's eye, with music serving as its soundtrack.
And, it turns out, this same medial prefrontal cortex had been identified in earlier research as one of the last parts of the brain to atrophy as Alzheimer's disease progresses.
Dr. Janata hopes to study whether the same phenomenon occurs, in the same part of the brain, with older test subjects and eventually with Alzheimer's patients. He says that activating memories with music cannot reverse or cure neurological diseases like dementia. But playing familiar music frequently can significantly improve a patient's mood, alertness and quality of life.
Music therapy isn't used more widely with Alzheimer's and dementia patients largely because of a lack of manpower and money, experts say. There are only about 5,000 certified music therapists in the U.S., and fewer than 20% work with geriatric patients. That's why the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function is trying to bring music therapy into patients' homes.
Caregivers or family members can use records or tapes at home, or program their own iPods. The institute provides suggested songs by era and genre on its Web site, www.imnf.org. But those who don't have the time or technical skills can send an iPod to the institute after filling out a questionnaire about the patient's musical tastes, and the institute will program a customized iPod for them. (See the Web site for prices and package information.) The institute is also seeking donations of iPods that are no longer in use to load with music and send to Alzheimer's patients who can't afford their own.
What to Do: Old iPods
Your outdated or unused iPods or MP3 players could bring healing music to an Alzheimer's, stroke or pain patient. Send donations to the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function at 612 Allerton Ave., Bronx, NY, 10467. They must be working and still able to hold a charge.
Dr. Tomaino advises caregivers to listen as long as the patient seems interested. A patient may want to listen alone through headphones or through speakers so that a friend or family member can listen along. "Then they can reminisce together about what the music reminds them of or just hold hands to be more connected," she says. She also suggests involving the whole family in interacting with the music. "The kids can drum along while Grandpa listens to Big Band sounds," she says.
One possible downside: Dr. Tomaino says sometimes a song can evoke unhappy memories, such as the death of a loved one or a relationship gone bad. She recalls a Holocaust survivor at Beth Abraham who became very upset upon hearing a Wagner opera.
"If family members don't know what music would be appropriate, think in generalizations," she says. "If a parent loved to go dancing in their teens, picking the most popular songs from that era tends to be pretty safe." Music from a person's teenage years seems to be especially evocative of memories, for reasons not well understood.