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Familiar music might improve memory during cognitive decline

Listening to familiar music daily for three weeks improved memory, possibly by increasing cerebral efficiency in brain regions related to emotion, reward, motor learning, and memory.


Some evidence suggests that people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can benefit from listening to music. Music that people are familiar with might be particularly beneficial, as it can evoke an emotional response and reinforce autobiographical memories, defined as specific episodes recollected from an individual’s life.

The study

This trial assessed the effects of listening to long-known music on brain structure and function and global memory performance among participants with MCI or early AD. As a secondary outcome, the authors assessed whether being a musician, defined as having played music professionally or having received formal musical training, affected the outcomes.

The participants, 6 musicians and 8 nonmusicians (average age of 73), listened to a playlist with long-known music one hour per day for three weeks. The authors defined long-known music as music known to the participant for at least 20 years and with a special meaning (e.g., the music they danced to at their wedding).

Before and after the study, the participants completed the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MCA) to assess global memory performance. In addition, participants underwent structural and task-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans before and after the intervention. During the task-based fMRI scans, participants listened to a series of 20-second music excerpts. The music consisted of 12 excerpts of long-known music and 12 excerpts of music first heard 60 minutes before the fMRI.

The results

Participants exhibited an improvement in their memory subscore after the intervention, with no effects on visuospatial/executive function, naming, attention, language, abstraction, orientation, or total MCA scores. When the authors stratified the results by musician subgroups, a significant effect only occurred among nonmusicians.

After the intervention, the participants experienced reduced activation in the bilateral globus pallidus and the right inferior frontal gyri during the music listening task. When the authors stratified the results by musician subgroups, nonmusicians experienced reduced activation in the left and right globus pallidus, with no change among musicians.

The globus pallidus plays a role in movement regulation and motor learning. The authors hypothesized that decreased activation in this region over time might reflect increased efficiency during repeated exposure. The globus pallidus also plays a role in reward pathways, and the authors noted that its decreased activation could be due to the pleasurable aspects of the musical memory task. The right interior frontal gyri plays a role in emotion and memory retrieval, and the authors hypothesized that decreased activation over time might be related to greater processing efficiency within these domains.

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