Music can spark memories, even for those with AD

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Team members and residents often gather in the Memory Care living room at Three Oaks to participate in Music Therapy. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

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Music has an amazing ability to bypass parts of Alzheimer’s disease to reach melodies and memories.

In a recent CBS Sunday Morning video, singer Glen Campbell expertly and with a flourish finishes the last chords of “Galveston,” a decades-old hit. He swings into his next piece – “Galveston.” Behind him, his three children, also band members, chuckle affectionately and stop playing for a moment.

Finally, “We just did that one, Dad,” says daughter Ashley.

Campbell turns quickly to the audience.

“I ain’t taught ’em how to follow me yet,” he jokes, drawing cheers. He swings into another song, resuming this piece of his poignantly named “Goodbye Tour.”

Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in 2011, but his daughter tells the interviewer his symptoms started years ago. Onstage, his children support him if he gets disoriented, as does a teleprompter. The Alzheimer’s Association, in its December 2011 newsletter, was moved to write, “Whatever else Alzheimer’s may have done to the 75-year-old entertainer, it hasn’t affected his voice or his gorgeous guitar solos.”

Three Oaks Assisted Living, in Cary, uses music therapy programming in its memory care community, and regularly plays music over the speaker system to help comfort residents.

Why is that? Campbell’s performan despite AD may counterintuitive, but people who work with AD patients aren’t surprised. Like many people with dementia, Campbell may remember very well those songs familiar to him from his past, as well as the memories around those songs.

Music “has an evocative and mnemonic power in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which can give access to lost powers and lost identity ... an access which cannot be provided by anything else,” neurologist Oliver Sacks testified to the Senate Committee on Aging in 1991. Sacks today is well-known for his work with post-encephalitic patients, which inspired the movie “Awakenings,” as well as for his work on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Much study has gone into music’s impact on dementia, with Sacks prominent in the research. Those studies show that our brains store music memories in varied areas, and playing music gains access to those, albeit for a short time.

We make memories in the medial temporal lobes of our brains, such as the hippocampus, and these are “the first parts to be ravaged as Alzheimer’s develops,” Boston University associate professor Brandon Ally told BU Today. By contrast, music pulls from the relatively unscathed cortical and subcortical areas. Ally partnered on a study showing that people with AD learned more quickly when instructions were set to music.

Caregivers could, for example, set reminders to music: “Take the red pill at nine in the morning and the green pill at 10,” Nick Simmons-Stern, Ally’s fellow researcher, told Public Broadcasting System’s NOVA in 2010.

Recent to the music therapy scene is “Alive Inside,” a not-yet-released documentary intended in part to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and music. According to its Website, the film follows social worker Dan Cohen as he introduces iPods to nursing home residents and finds that “many residents suffering from memory loss seem to ‘awaken’ when they (hear) music from their past.” Cohen approached Sacks with his findings, and the two collaborated on the film. Cohen subsequently started Mineola, N.Y.-based Music & Memory, a nonprofit that supplies personalized iPods to people with AD.

For more information about the Three Oaks Memory Care program, call (847) 516-6016.