Senior man wearing headphones listens songs on laptop

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TORONTO, Ontario — Music can have a powerful impact on the human mind. Previous studies have even found that listening to certain songs can improve health and reduce mental illness. When it comes to hearing our favorite and most memorable songs, a new study reveals that Alzheimer’s patients and those suffering from mild cognitive impairment see improvements in their brain function and memory.

Researchers at the University of Toronto discovered changes in the neural pathways of the brain which have a link to increased memory performance among dementia patients listening to personalized playlists.

“We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music — that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like the song they danced to at their wedding — stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning,” says senior author Michael Thaut, director of Toronto’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, in a university release.

“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia — musicians and non-musicians alike.”

How does music affect the brain?

While examining these dementia patients, the team found noticeable changes in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center for deep thinking tasks. Their study reveals that listening to personally meaningful tunes activates a specific neural network (a musical network) which consists of diverse brain regions. These regions show different levels of activity after the patients listen to music daily.

The team also found that there were differences in the brain’s connections to white matter, providing evidence of neuroplasticity — the ability to form to new brain connections after learning or suffering an injury.

“Music-based interventions may be a feasible, cost-effective and readily accessible intervention for those in early-stage cognitive decline,” says lead author Corinne Fischer.

“Existing treatments for Alzheimer’s disease have shown limited benefit to date. While larger controlled studies are required to confirm clinical benefits, our findings show that an individualized and home-based approach to music-listening may be beneficial and have lasting effects on the brain.”

Does new music impact the brain in the same way?

Researchers examined 14 participants (eight non-musicians and six musicians) who listened to a playlist of their favorite and personally relevant songs. These individuals listened to the music for one hour a day for three weeks. The group also underwent fMRI scans before and after the experiment to measure changes in brain function and brain structure.

During the scans, they also listened to both their favorite musical choices and new music with no personal connection to them.

When listening to new music, study authors found that the patients’ brains had more activity in the auditory cortex, center of the listening experience. This was much different than when the group listened to their own music, which activated the deep-encoded network of the prefrontal cortex. Researchers say this is a clear sign of higher brain functioning at work.

The dementia patients also experienced more activity in the subcortical brain regions, older areas of the brain which Alzheimer’s disease does not impact as severely.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your pre-frontal cortex,” Thaut concludes. “It’s simple — keep listening to the music that you’ve loved all your life. Your all-time favorite songs, those pieces that are especially meaningful to you — make that your brain gym.”

The study appears in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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