Listening to Favorite Songs Boosts Cognitive Performance in Alzheimer’s Patients

Listening to music has long been known to benefit Alzheimer’s patients. It can be calming, help with behavioral issues, and even allow patients with advanced disease to briefly remember something. Could it also help improve brain health? A new study says it might, if the music is special to the listener.

A team of researchers at the University of Toronto studied the impacts music could have on the brain and cognitive performance of those with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s. They found that long-familiar tunes were linked with beneficial brain plasticity and improved results on neuropsychological tests relating to memory. The findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.


Michael Thaut, senior author and director of U of T’s Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, says, “We have new brain-based evidence that autobiographically salient music – that is, music that holds special meaning for a person, like the song they danced to at their wedding – stimulates neural connectivity in ways that help maintain higher levels of functioning.”

The team measured such music’s effects on 14 people – six musicians and eight non-musicians. Each participant listened to a curated playlist of long-familiar songs that were meaningful to them for one hour each day over three weeks. Before and after the listening period, the participants underwent structural and task-based functional MRI. During the scans, they listened to clips of the familiar songs, as well as new music that was similar in style but held no deeper meaning for them.

With new music, brain activity was primarily observed in the auditory cortex. However, when participants listened to long-familiar songs, there was significant activity in the prefrontal cortex, where deep cognitive processes occur. Engagement was also seen in brain regions that are not typically impacted strongly by Alzheimer’s. There were notable differences in the brain’s connections and white matter, as well, which the team says is a sign of neuroplasticity.


Another notable observation was that there were slight differences in brain changes between the musicians and the non-musicians. However, the team says more research is needed to confirm these differences.

Regardless of a person’s background with creating music themselves, all participants demonstrated improved cognition.

Thaut says, “Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia – musicians and non-musicians alike.”


If further studies confirm these findings, the researchers say listening to meaningful music may prove to be an affordable and easily administered treatment for those in early cognitive decline.

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