Listening to music that evokes happy memories of days gone by can change the tenor of lives debilitated by dementia. And with no new treatments since the medication Memantine in 2004, helping some of the 5 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s feel better with a little digital music therapy sounds really good to assistant adjunct professor of neurology Joshua Grill. Director of clinical trials and also head of recruitment and education at the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research at UCLA, Grill is on a campaign to collect pre-owned iPods and MP3 players for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in nursing homes.
While no studies have been done to explain it, "anecdotal reports of what happens with patients who get [iPod and MP3] music therapy are pretty staggering," Grill said. Nursing homes report patients receiving music therapy are happier and more sociable. "Patients who haven’t slept through the night in a long time [are now] sleeping through the night," said Grill. "Or finishing their meals. Or just having a smile on their face for the first time in awhile."
Grill began his quest for iPods and MP3 players a few months ago after hearing a story on NPR about the national nonprofit organization Music & Memory, which he partners with to provide music therapy to nursing homes in the Los Angeles area. The Easton center pitches in with a Tunes for Alzheimer’s Patients web page that provides donation details. It also features a poignant Music & Memory video (below) of Henry, an Alzheimer’s patient, who goes from withdrawn to animated listening to some of his favorite music — from 1930s jazz singer Cab Calloway to church spirituals.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by severe memory impairment, Grill noted, so it may seem a contradiction for patients to be able to connect with memories via music. But "the biology of the disease is affecting the part of the brain that lets us put new memories in — short-term memory," he said. "The brain continues to work pretty well at pulling old memories out, and that can persist until very late in the disease."
While Alzheimer’s patients "may not be able to remember a list of words you gave them five or 10 minutes ago, they often can give you spectacular details of memories from their youth or young adulthood," Grill said. "The ability to pull out old memories — and the positive emotions that come with these memories — can still be quite efficient."
Henry, of the Music & Memory video, not only becomes animated while hearing music from his younger days, but, according to his daughter, he remembers the lyrics to particular songs and continues to sing them even after the iPod has stopped playing.
"Music may tap into old memories — positive experiences from your youth associated with particular music — even better than just trying to remember things," said Grill.
Research on stroke patients with damage to parts of the brain that control the production of language has found, oddly enough, that, although they can’t speak, they can sing, Grill said. "There’s an innate quality that music has that activates the brain differently. And doing so in Alzheimer’s patients, who have a brain that is dealing with the significant challenge of a biological disease attacking the brain, may enable the activation of networks that haven’t been activated in a long time."
So far, Grill has been able to send 14 iPods to patients at a nursing home in Northridge, a small but significant start. Three of those iPods Grill donated himself, of which two needed repair. That fortuitously led him to local "iPod surgeon" Joe Kempe, who now volunteers his services. "Out of the goodness of his heart, he agreed to help refurbish iPods that are salvageable for this purpose," said Grill.
Determining the specifics of music to download to each patient’s device is left to nursing home staff, drawing on input from family members.
"The family might say, ‘Well, Dad was in the war and used to love this,’" said Grill. "The more familiar the music, the better. The critical thing is that we want to actually spark memories in these patients. So the music should be associated with a time of their life with positive memories.
"This isn’t going to cure the disease," said Grill. "I spend most of my time doing things that I hope will help cure the disease," running clinical trials that could lead to a breakthrough drug. "I think we’re on the cusp of that," he said, "but the reality is that [for millions of people], this is a progressive disease that finds people living out their days in severe states of dementia requiring 24-hour care.
"It’s not much work to collect iPods," Grill said, "and we can make an impact in lives that we wouldn’t otherwise. Why wouldn’t we do that?"
To make a tax-deductible donation of iPods and MP3 players — both working and non-working — along with chargers, headphones and iTunes gift cards so that nursing homes can purchase music for their patients, visit the Easton Center Tunes for Alzheimer’s patients website.