Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alzheimer’s and Musical Memories

Summary: In mid October, I was watching the Bravo channel documentary titled The Musical Brain. This W-Five documentary highlighted interviews with several neuroscientists working in the area of the brain and music, as well as interviews with famous musicians such as Sting, Michael Buble, and Feist. Some of the scientists’ work caught my eye, specifically the work of Dr. Lola Cuddy and Dr. Petr Janata. There were many common threads through the commentaries but one thread in particular was about music, memory, and emotion.

Dr. Cuddy discussed an Alzheimer’s patient who would forget her husband but could remember all the songs from the time that she was a nurse in World War II, and that “preservation of the moment in music, the emotion in music even when they forget everything else”. Dr. Janata indicated that music is a “retrieval cue” and is the last part of the brain that goes in Alzheimer’s patients. Although I knew, at the moment I was watching this documentary, what Dr. Janata was generally referring to in the interview, I either did not make specific enough notes or the documentary producers clipped and snipped information that would give more specifics - so off I went in search of more detail in this area.

An article I found, Your brain on music highlights some fairly recent work of Janata,

Janata discusses the area of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex and how it relates to memory and emotion, in both the younger population and Alzheimer’s patients. He explains that in Alzheimers, this area of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex, is the last to atrophy so patients “brighten up, dance, sing, and can even recognize wrong notes in music from their past” which concurs with what Cuddy found in her patient. Music appears to be a “trigger to retrieve memories”.

So, stepping back in time to a younger life, one might ask how the connection between music, memories, and emotion becomes so intertwined in youth, and so sustaining into adult life and in the case of Alzheimers, in brain degeneration. One of Janata’s experiments, noted in this article, used 13 UC Davis undergrad student subjects. Comfortably resting in an MRI machine with headphones on, Janata exposed the student to snippets of popular and R&B musics that would have been popular during their adolescent and teen years (7-19). Since undergrad and age 19 might be concurrent, it appears that he also used music that would be part of their current repertoire. He used music that related to them during these years because he felt that this hormonal and change-intensive time in their lives is more connected to music they listen to - the music becomes more involved in their social life and “sense of self”. It is the connection of the music to our memories, some of them strong emotional memories, that may “maintain a sense of self as we age”.

Janata also believes that there is a “hub” in our brain for music, memory, and emotions, and this hub is the medial prefrontal cortex. His first test results clearly pointed to this hub when “the medial prefrontal cortex lit up like a Christmas tree whenever strong autobiographical memories were evoked”, but a second data-test result showed activity throughout the brain (in MRI scans). Apparently, the second test results were showing non-music brain activity that was also transpiring. So Janata refined his test and the third results supported his first findings that located a hub. What this highlights for him is that a way to give happiness, even for a short time, to patients suffering from Alzheimers is through music and perhaps more specifically, music that evokes personal memories and emotions.

Reflection: Every time I read a study related to the brain, or specifically to music and the brain, I am in awe. Our brains are so incredibly complex and sophisticated, and I often take for granted how everything just works the way we expect it to, until of course it doesn’t work how we expect it to. Our brains may not operate at ‘full’ capacity due to serious illness such as Alzheimers or Parkinsons, or age and hormones, or accident and injury, or genetics, or various other reasons. But then, I wonder what is full capacity any way and how would we know that we have ever reached it. How do we know that are brains are ‘telling’ us what full capacity is? What potential is still left uncovered? It appears to me that discovering this and other answers to questions about the brain involves research, study, and a great deal of speculation.

I also think about how music, memories, ideas, and experiences etc. get locked away from our consciousness until some outside event, whether positive or negative, triggers them again. How much information is actually stored in our brains? What information is stored in our brains that we may have no recollection of, and that may never be triggered and brought to our consciousness again? Even in a relatively 'healthy' brain, what thoughts and experiences did we have that we might never remember we had?

Getting back to Janata’s research, as noted in this article, it appears to compliment other research and findings in in this area. Through his work, we have discovered a little bit more about the physiology of the brain, but perhaps more importantly, it can guide us in routes of discovery in music therapy. We can investigate ways, through music, that may improve the quality of life for those suffering from illnesses of this kind, and for the family and friends who love and support them.

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