How Alzheimer’s affects the brain and how music can help with it

We now have access to the biggest ever map of human Alzheimer’s brain. A study that enabled us the insights into the brain examined the differences between healthy brain and brain with Alzheimer’s disease. And the result? Absolutely remarkable. It is the largest dataset of its type ever.

The cerebellum, region of the brain previously thought to be unaffected by Alzheimer’s displayed a series of changes which they think might protect it from damage caused by Alzheimer’s. This analysis generated a massive 24,024 data points by mapping the relative levels of over 5,825 distinct proteins across six regions of the brain.

The brain regions in the study included the more heavily affected Hippocampus, Entorhinal cortex, Cingulate gyrus and the less affected Motor Cortex, Sensory Cortex, and Cerebellum. The team identified 129 protein changes which were present in all areas of the brain studied, with at least 44 not previously associated with the disease.

And how can music help with Alzheimer’s?

It activates regions of the brain spared by Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s does not seem to affect the salience network, which shows higher functional connectivity when listening to music.

But wait, what’s salience network? The salience network is a collection of regions of the brain that select which stimuli are deserving of our attention. The network has key nodes in the insular cortex and is critical for detecting behaviourally relevant stimuli and for coordinating the brain’s neural resources in response to these stimuli.

Now let’s talk about the music reserach – for three weeks, participants continuously listened to meaningful songs (chosen by themselves) by their caregiver carrying around a portable media player.

Using a functional MRI, the researchers scanned the patients to image the regions of the brain that lit up when they listened to 20-second clips of music versus silence. The researchers played eight clips of music from the patient’s music collection, eight clips of the same music played in reverse and eight blocks of silence. The researchers compared the images from each scan.

What they found out is that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate. By listening to the meaningful playlist, the visual network, the salience network, the executive network and the cerebellar and corticocerebellar network pairs all showed significantly higher functional connectivity. And this is objective evidence that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease.

This is a diagram of brain networks involved in processing attention. This image is credited to Brain Network Lab.

This is a diagram of brain networks involved in processing attention. This image is credited to Brain Network Lab.

However, further research is needed. And while they’re not saying listening to music will cure Alzheimer’s, it offers a new way to treat it and improve patient’s quality of life.


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