music therapy, music and memory
The Plain Dealer, Lisa DeJong/AP

Why Music Matters for Alzheimer’s Patients

March 02, 2009 07:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
A new UC Davis study shows that memory, music and emotions all activate the same region of the brain, which may have implications for Alzheimer’s patients.

Making Memories With Music

The idea that songs can evoke memories of people, places and moments from our pasts is hardly news, but Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has figured out why.
According to ScienceDaily, Janata’s research builds upon earlier findings that Alzheimer’s patients who have difficulty with their memory still respond to music. After mapping the brain activity of a group of individuals while they listened to music, Janata noted activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the forehead.

According to WiseGeek, “The prefrontal cortex is the brain center most strongly implicated in qualities like sentience, human general intelligence, and personality.” And the term medial, according to, simply means “nearer the middle of the body.”
MSNBC reported Janata’s finding that as Alzheimer’s progresses, this area remains intact longer, while most other areas of the brain have deteriorated. When a song elicits a memory, Janata explains, “[The] music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”

In his early research, Janata created “tonal maps” of a subject’s brain activity as various chords were played. The areas active in the tonal study corresponded to the same areas where subjects appeared to be accessing memories—the medial prefrontal cortex and neighboring regions. ScienceDaily reported that the more significant the autobiographical memory was the stronger the “tracking” activity.

In another of Janata’s studies, he first selected a group of the most popular songs from years when the subjects were between 7 and 19 years old. David Munger, a writer for Cognitive Daily, explained that in this study, 329 subjects listened to 30 such songs chosen at random. They rated each song’s familiarity, what emotions it triggered, and whether or not they liked it. In cases where the song elicited a memory, they were asked whether the memory related to a person, place or event. Subjects recognized about half of the songs they heard, and about 30 percent of the songs stirred up a memory. The most familiar songs were more often linked to a memory.
Janata’s most recent study, “The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories,” available online from the journal Cerebral Cortex, used only 13 subjects but followed a similar structure. He used music from top 100 lists and self-reported responses. His subjects were chosen because they had a 30 percent success rate of music-evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) in the previous study. The difference was that this time Janata recorded his subjects’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI equipment.

ScienceDaily reported that the stronger and more personally relevant a memory was, as indicated by the individual’s responses in their survey, the greater the activity on the fMRI images in the upper or dorsal area of the medial prefrontal cortex.

But how do we choose which memory will be paired with which song, when there is more than one meaningful experience that occurs while listening to the same song, asks Munger. And how important are songs in connection with memories in comparison to images or smells? Munger calls Petr Janata’s study “an important first step” toward reaching an answer to his questions.

Janata hopes one day to use his research to help him design music-based therapy for Alzheimer’s patients.

Audio: Music and memory

In an NPR discussion, Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of “Awakenings” and “Musicophilia,” explores a case study of a musician named Clive. After suffering a stroke, Clive couldn’t recognize his wife if he passed her on the street, but he recognizes her by the sound of her footsteps and by her kisses. Sacks explains why Clive’s auditory and physical memories are still sharp.

Related Topic: New treatments for Alzheimer’s patients

In a Sacramento Bee series about alternative therapies for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, Carol Abaya explained, “Music affects how a person feels … A mental high equals happiness, and even those with dementia know when they are happy.”

In 2008, researchers in Los Angeles found that spinal injections of a drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis could undo the cognitive damage caused by Alzheimer’s.

Concetta M. Tomaino, director for The Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, says, “Music … can provide access not only to specific moods and memories, but also to the entire thought-structure and personality of the past.”

Reference: Alzheimer’s disease, science of the brain

FindingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease provides insight into the causes, symptoms and treatment of the condition.

To learn more about the brain, read findingDulcinea’s Web Guide to Science.

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