Music treatment may ease anxiety, depression in dementia patients

The salience network of the brain is responsible for selecting which outside stimuli are deserving of our attention — and it’s one of the few regions spared by Alzheimer’s.

That’s why researchers at the University of Utah Health are investigating if the area can be stirred by music to alleviate anxiety in dementia patients. Tests of the effects of a personalized playlist on the moods of those with the debilitating brain disease showed improvements in patient anxiety levels, depression and agitation, the study, published in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease said.

“People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety” the study’s contributing author Jeff Anderson said in a release. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

Over the course of the three-week-long study, the researchers and patients selected songs that caregivers would play. The study’s authors recorded their highly positive observations and a functional MRI scan was administered to check for changes in the brain.

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“When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive,” first author Jace King said. “Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”

The team saw that while the patient listened to his or her playlist, the salience network, the executive network and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs of the brain were all activated and showed higher levels of functionality and connectivity on the MRI.

“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” the university’s Director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care and the paper’s senior author, Norman Foster, said. “Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses, but personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”

But the study noted that these results are in no way conclusive or certain to replicate in anyone with the disease. Their trial was only made up of 17 patients and a larger, longer study is being needed but the researchers are encouraged by their initial results.

“In our society, the diagnoses of dementia are snowballing and are taxing resources to the max,” Anderson said. “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.”

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