Catchy music does, in fact, get stuck in your head. A new study suggests that playing familiar music to patients with Alzheimer's disease can stimulate parts of their brain and reconnect them with the world.
Researchers from the University of Utah Health studied the so-called "salience network," a region of the brain that is stimulated in response to a touching piece of music and is spared from the ravages of dementia.
They found that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate, according to a press release published last week.
"People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety," said Jeff Anderson, associate professor in radiology and co-author of the study. "We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning."
To conduct the study, researchers played eight short clips of meaningful songs to 17 participants and scanned their brains using Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
"When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive," said Jace King, a graduate student in the Brain Network Lab and first author on the paper. "Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality."
The results offer a potential music-based treatment to help alleviate anxiety in patients with dementia, said the researchers.
However, they admitted that the results are not conclusive given the small sample size. In addition, it remains unclear if the effects identified in the study can persist beyond a brief period of stimulation.
"No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer's disease, but it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient's quality of life," said Anderson.
The study will appear in the April online issue of The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.