Music & Memory

Music improves memory in Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers have long suspected that music has a unique role in memory, and one of the most striking examples of this link is the way that memory for music seems to survive as we age or in cases where cognitive function is impaired by illness or injury. Often individuals whose memories are failing can still recall favourite songs and lyrics. There is also the case of Clive Wearing. Clive was an accomplished musicologist and conductor when he was struck down with encephalitis in his 40s, resulting in a dense amnesia. Despite having a current memory span of between only 7-30 seconds, and not being about to recall any of his musical education, Clive can still play the piano and conduct a choir.

A recent paper supports the importance of music in memory by demonstrating that patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) are better able to recognise new lyrics when they are sung compared to when they are spoken – in fact they showed more of an improvement thanks to the music than a control group of age matched volunteers.  The research was carried out by Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and was reported in Neuropsychologia.

During the study phase AD patients and healthy controls were visually presented with 40 lyric excerpts which were chosen from unfamiliar children’s songs. Twenty of the lyric excerpts were accompanied by a sung recording and 20 were accompanied by a spoken recording.  During the following test phase 80 lyric excerpts were presented on a computer screen, 40 new and 40 from the study phase, and participants were asked to make an “old/new” recognition judgement. The BUSM researchers found recognition was greater for the sung lyrics compared to the spoken lyrics for AD patients. There was no difference for the healthy older controls, but the participants in this group scored very well in all conditions.

Senior author Brandon Ally, an assistant professor of neurology and director of Neuropsychology Research at the BUSM Center for Translational Cognitive Neuroscience said “Music processing encompasses a complex neural network that recruits from all areas of the brain, that are affected at a slower rate in AD compared to the areas of the brain typically associated with memory. Thus, stimuli accompanied by music and a sung recording may create a more robust association at encoding than do stimuli accompanied by only a spoken recording in patients with AD” .

Nicholas R. Simmons-Stern, Andrew E. Budson, Brandon A. Ally, ‘Music as a Memory Enhancer in Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease’, Neuropsychologia, May 2010; doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.033

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