Music through Memories

Most people think music is nothing more than a source of entertainment, but it can be the thing that brings memories back to those who suffer from Alzheimer’s. Within the last century music therapy has come to light as being one of the best alternatives to pharmacological treatments for Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease of the brain and it affects individuals be complicating one’s ability to remember certain things as well as make social interactions more difficult than before. Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is not a curable condition; however, it can be treated. Music therapy is simply the use of musical intervention to treat a condition. In medicine today, music therapy is often used to treat psychiatric disorders of varying kinds. It can come in many different forms, all the way from singing or playing an instrument to something as simple as just listening to it in the background while doing another activity. Music therapy as a whole is an effective method of treatment for Alzheimer’s patients, because of the several neurological effects that music has on the mind and body.

The human body has countless physiological processes that take place every millisecond of every day in an individual’s life and they can be greatly affected by something as simple as music. Its effects range from influencing the intensity of a workout or speeding up its recovery, to prolonging sleep and improving the quality of sleep for an individual. However, some of the most impactful effects that music can have on the body are its abilities to alter one’s emotions and cognitive patterns. These effects have been known for thousands of years, dating all the way back to Plato in ancient Greece. Today, these effects can be utilized to combat the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s and several other psychiatric disorders. Music is one of the few things that is around people all throughout their lives, from conception to death. Even when still in the womb, the fetus is able to hear music from the outside world and its effects are similar to that in children and adults. One of the main reasons music therapy is such a viable option for treatment is because there are no side effects, like the pharmacological treatments available. Individuals who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have trouble with their memory depending on the severity of their condition. Music is a way for these individuals to reconnect with their pasts. Some other ways that music helps those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is by improving their ability to communicate with others after therapy. Music therapy works to help protect the cognitive memory of those suffering with Alzheimer’s from neurodegenerative processes (Trimble). As different stimulation occurs more neuronal connections can be made allowing for cognitive abilities to be more prevalent. With more and more of these connections being created, there will be improved fluidity in the areas of the brain responsible for language, such as Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area, and memory, such the limbic system. The beneficial effects of music therapy can be elicited through any of the many methods used to treat individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

Music therapy can be administered in a variety of ways and each method can lead to different results. In general, there are two larger domains of music therapy, receptive and active. Active therapy is utilized by having the patient actively do something, such as physically playing music themselves with an instrument or singing a song. On the other hand, receptive music therapy is the method of exposing patients to music. Playing instruments can be included in both active and receptive, because the patient is creating the music themselves as well as listening to the music that he or she is playing. According to research conducted by Fang and colleagues, spoken texts were not remembered as well as sung texts. Similarly, the method of listening to music that the patients enjoyed led to improvements in anxiety, depression, and memory (Fang). Singing songs helped to improve short term memory, and this likely helps in the same way that many students use short rhymes to remember information in the academic setting. Another strategy for utilizing receptive music therapy is to have the music playing in the background while the patient is engaged in another activity. In this situation the patient is likely being a casual listener, because he or she is simply just enjoying the music and not concentrating on it. Due to the nature of Alzheimer’s disease treatment must be done on a constant basis or the effects of the treatment will dissipate. “The effect had diminished one month after the therapy was stopped” (Svansdottir and Snaedal 7). The study done by Svansdottir and Snaedal used only active music therapy, like singing for example. In order for the positive effects of music therapy to remain, the therapy should be continued. If music therapy is stopped, then the effects of music therapy will slowly begin to decline. Music therapy is an extremely useful tool for treating Alzheimer’s and the reasons for this are the neurological changes that occur during treatment.

The human brain is roughly a three pound tissue mass in the skull, and it is the very reason humans are capable of such incredible cognitive abilities. Alzheimer’s disease essentially changes the way the brain functions by erasing many of the neurological connections and this leads to the death of brain cells. Neuroplasticity is the recruitment of other regions of the brain to carry out the functions of the damaged regions. No new cells are created in this mechanism, but activity is directed to areas that initially are not responsible for certain functions. Neurogenesis and repair is another mechanism that proposes that music leads to the release of steroids hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol. These hormones are believed to have a regenerative effect on the cranial nerves and improve connections that have been damaged by Alzheimer’s. The neuroendocrine mechanism goes hand-in-hand with the neurogenesis and repair mechanism, because it specifically emphasizes the effects of hormones. Many of these hormones are capable of acting as preventives for the effects in Alzheimer’s patients. The use of music therapy increases the secretion of these hormones as well as several neurotransmitters that are beneficial in the neurological connections within the brain. The final neurological mechanism is the neuropsychiatric mechanism, which encompasses the influence of music on emotions and how it affects Alzheimer’s patients. “Sad music was found to be the most effective to autobiographical memory” (Fang). Memories are often linked to some sort of emotion, so using music to bring a emotion back to light can be effective at bringing a memory back for a patient with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s is a disorder that can be treated using music therapy because of music’s abilities to neurologically change the neural connections within the brain. Alzheimer’s is often characterized by the death of many brain cells. The primary use of music therapy for Alzheimer’s patients is to try and reduce the degradation of the brain or even assist in creating new pathways and connections. Music therapy is effective at improving memory, communication abilities, and emotional states of those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The four main mechanisms that are responsible for these improvements are the neuroplasticity, neurogenesis and repair, neuroendocrine, and neuropsychiatric mechanisms. Each of these mechanisms have the potential to greatly improve the lives of Alzheimer’s patients. For those who receive music therapy, music is not just a form of entertainment, it is what helps reconnect these individuals with their own memories.

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