The holidays are a time of sharing, and not just food or gifts, but also profound, timeless memories. Whether you celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan, come November 1st, when that holiday music streams out of your car’s stereo and into the mall’s stores, a floodgate to strong, emotionally laden, memories is opened. Memories of one’s life events, elicited by music, are called Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories (MEAMs)  — and they are powerful; MEAMs have the ability to conjure a tidal wave of contextually rich and textured memories; for me this would be Bing Crosby’s, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” sparking a memory of my Italian mother and I preparing handmade tortelloni for Christmas dinner (see picture; they taste as delicious as they look).
More surprisingly though, MEAMs can elicit memories in those who otherwise struggle to access events from their past (e.g. those with Alzheimer’s Disease). As Oliver Sacks, M.D., renowned neurologist and best-selling author of Musicophilia noted, “the past which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people [with dementia] can regain a sense of identity” [2; see the video]. But big questions remain: How is this possible? And what does this mean for the 5.3 million Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s Disease?
There is a developing neuroscience behind the ability of music to evoke strong memories of past events. A form of brain imaging, known as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), has shown us that when we experience emotionally salient episodic memories triggered by familiar songs from our past, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is activated .
This discovery, made by cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Petr Janata, helps explain why music can elicit memories from those with Alzheimer’s disease — Firstly, the mPFC is regarded as a region of the brain that supports the retrieval of autobiographical memories (i.e. memories of one’s life) . Secondly, it so happens that the mPFC is one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of Alzheimer’s Disease . It seems then that familiar music is acting as a stimulus for the mPFC, enabling the elicitation of memories that were previously unreachable. In the words of the Dr. Petr Janata, “What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head .”
As discussed music can unlock old memories in those with Alzheimer’s Disease, but what about its ability to help them learn new information? The hippocampus, and medial temporal lobe in general, is known to be involved in the formation of new memories . It is also one of the first regions to atrophy in Alzheimer’s Disease patients . Research investigating the difference in ability to accurately recognize novel, sung vs. spoken, lyrics found that patients with Alzheimer’s Disease demonstrated better recognition accuracy when lyrics were sung rather than read to them; in contrast, older adults free of Alzheimer’s Disease and related memory impairments (the control group) demonstrated no significant difference between the two . Given the struggle Alzheimer’s Disease patients undergo to retain new information, these results are stunning. Through the use of fMRI, we know that the brain processes music in a global fashion, recruiting both cortical (e.g. mPFC) and subcortical (e.g. hippocampus) areas [1, 7]. Neuroscientists therefore speculate that, in the Alzheimer’s brain, music is enabling the recruitment of less damaged brain regions that are aiding in the encoding process of the new information. If so, this could lead to a new way of helping Alzheimer’s patients remember to, for example, take their medication; listening to a tune could be the reminder needed to carry out actions crucial to their well-being, giving them a chance to regain their independence.
Science has shown that music can help those suffering from Alzheimer’s retrieve old and form new memories. This speaks to the importance of enabling Alzheimer’s Disease patients, and the elderly in general, access to the music they know and enjoy. The Alive Inside Foundation, a not-for-profit organization and GrandPad partner, has dedicated themselves to the mission of expanding human connection and cultivating empathy through the power of music.
They have created a curriculum in which school-age children share stories with and learn about the lives of elderly persons, residing in nursing facilities. In this way these students can curate music for the elderly, which can then be listened to on donated iPods. The following clip from the foundation’s 2014 award winning Sundance film, Alive Inside, depicts Henry, a nursing home resident who has suffered severe dementia. Watch as he emerges from, “the cocoon he had been inside of for ten years” upon listening to his favorite song. The video (see video 2) shows how he was inert, unresponsive and likely depressed, but through the power of music, reacquires his identity. At GrandPad we believe in music’s ability to emotionally and physically move and heal our elders. This is why we too meticulously curate music to each user’s preference. While listening to music may not reverse Alzheimer’s disease, it seems to aid memory [1,3] and can certainly improve the quality of life of those suffering from Alzheimer’s and related dementia  — and that could make all the difference to the patient, family and caregiver this holiday season and all year-round.