Music Memory and Alzheimer’s

A few weeks ago I saw a video circulating on Twitter about an elderly woman with dementia suddenly remembering the choreography to the ballet Swan Lake after listening to the music of it. It was amazing to see how her arms would move with no hesitation as if she was still on the stage dancing in front of an audience. There has been quite a bit of research done on the brain and how music affects it – especially with those who have dementia, and after watching this video I wanted to read some research articles and go more in-depth on the topic. I mentioned in my final presentation that I used to dance ballet frequently and plan to continue dancing here at Emory, however it has been a couple of years since I’ve rigorously danced. Even though it has been awhile, muscle memory still kicks in and my muscles do things that I rarely notice, like correct my posture and the position of my head. 

A picture of my sister and I after my dance recital from 2018!

Therefore, this video made me wonder if simple muscle memory led to the sudden arm movements the elderly women had or if a completely different part of the brain was active. As it turns out there is plenty of research on the effect of music on diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. There is ongoing research on if musical therapy for dementia and Alzheimer’s helps severe symptoms, if practicing music decreases risk for memory-loss diseases, and if music memory is less prone to memory-loss diseases — which is what I am interested in. However, in order to delve into the topic, a foundation on what dementia and Alzheimer’s is and how it progresses is needed.

Dementia is defined as the general loss of memory that hinders the ability to perform daily functions like speaking and problem solving. Dementia is often associated with Alzheimer’s, but can be an effect with many other diseases. It is caused by damage to the brain cells which hinders the communication of the nerves in the brain, thus affecting the speech, behavior, and emotions (Alzheimer’s Association, 2020). Alzheimer’s is a certain type of dementia that mostly affects memory and behavior; it progressively worsens over time which showcases much more severe symptoms in the elderly. The cause of Alzheimer’s is not fully understood, but a possible theory is the buildup of plaque and tangles in the brain that interfere with communication in the brain due to the destruction of nerve cells (Alzheimer’s Association, 2020). There is no cure to Alzheimer’s, but there is lots of research being done to try and develop a possible method to cure the disease, and as a product of the research many new discoveries about the disease have been found. For example, the association of music with Alzheimer’s.

There is a research article by Jörn-Henrik Jacobsen. They explain that music memory is preserved in Alzheimer’s patients due to a largely independent network of memory systems that usually remain intact even when other memory systems unrelated to music are damaged. The same applies the other way around as well, when the memory system related to music is damaged, the other memory systems usually remain intact. This is an example of the music memory network being independent from most memory systems. An experiment that was done to show this independence between memory systems was the researchers exposing people, 16 men and 16 women, to unknown, recently known, long known musical excerpts. They expected that different brain regions would be activated for each excerpt that was unfamiliar, recently known, and known for a while, and brain activity was mapped with an MRI (Jacobsen 2015). 

This image of the brain shows the difference in brain activity when the subjects were exposed to unknown music excerpts and long known music excerpts. The unknown music stimulus activates the frontal lobe of the brain more whereas the long known music activates the temporal lobe more often.

The researchers connected this back to Alzheimer’s by analyzing the spatial arrangements of the brain areas that were activated by the music excerpts and compared that to biomarkers in the brain for Alzheimer’s (biomarkers indicate areas of severity of a disease). After analyzing this data they concluded that “Alzheimer’s disease affects temporal lobes very early… but long-term musical memory is largely spared,” (Jacobsen 2015) and patients who have severe temporal lobe damage still have intact long term musical memory. This could very well be the explanation to why the elderly woman in the video almost instantly knew the music and could dance to it even though she suffers with memory loss.

This image shows the brain region of musical memory compared to the changes in the brain when one has severe Alzheimer’s.When analyzing the pictures, the area outlined (where music memory is stored) is relatively unaffected by the severe symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The severe symptoms are shown by the highly concentrated red areas and almost none overlap with the music memory location. 

“Former ballet dancer with Alzheimer’s reacts to Swan Lake music.” Youtube, uploaded by Guardian News, 13 November 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlAXKJfesBM&feature=emb_logo

Jacobsen, Jörn-Henrik et al. “Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer’s disease.” Brain : a journal of neurology vol. 138,Pt 8 (2015): 2438-50. doi:10.1093/brain/awv135

“What Is Alzheimer’s?” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, Alzheimer’s Association , 2020, www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-alzheimers. 

“What Is Dementia?” Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia, Alzheimer’s Association , 2020, www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/what-is-dementia.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Zay Yar Wint Naing says:

    Since I also did the topic on Alzheimer’s, it was really interesting to look at the application of Alzheimer’s on music memory. I found your interest and hobby in dancing fascinating, as I really have not met anyone that is as interested in dancing as you are. The studies and the science are sound, and the format of the works cited page is also solid. I really enjoyed reading your post! Good Job!

  2. Victor You says:

    I also saw that same video of the elderly woman remembering the dance choreography! I loved how you wove your personal perspective into this piece and the way it flowed. The included research study fit very well into your topic, and overall was a great piece!

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