Music, the "super stimulant" for your brain

There’s a lot of talk right now about music and Alzheimer’s. Especially in the wake of Alive Inside, the 2014 Sundance hit about nursing home residents who “wake up” after a social worker gives them headphones to listen to Schubert or the Shirelles. 

But it seems we're just beginning to tap into music’s potential to help people with cognitive decline.

Gracia Seal (centre) and St. Andrew's Regional High School students Jessica Coady(left), Claire O'Neill and Mari Chambers on percussion, practice with the Voices in Motion intergenerational choir project led by University of Victoria researchers. Photo credit: Suzanne Ahearne/UVic

Gracia Seal (centre) and St. Andrew's Regional High School students Jessica Coady(left), Claire O'Neill and Mari Chambers on percussion, practice with the Voices in Motion intergenerational choir project led by University of Victoria researchers. Photo credit: Suzanne Ahearne/UVic

I wrote a Globe piece last week about a new choir in Victoria, B.C., which teams up people with dementia, their caregivers and high school students. Researchers behind the project, called Voices in Motion, are studying whether singing in a choir can reduce depression, loneliness and stigma, and improve mental functioning.

This isn't just a “fill out a questionnaire and tell us how you feel” study. Choir members with dementia, as well as their caregivers, consented to monthly tests to measure their emotional states, cognition and physiological markers such as gait and grip strength.

In the study’s pilot phase, the researchers found a lowering of depression in choir participants, and a slight bump in their mental functioning.

Music isn’t magic. It cannot cure, reverse or halt the mental decline that comes with Alzheimer’s. But here’s what singing in a choir can do:

Combat loneliness, at a chemical level: Singing with others increases levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that gives us warm fuzzies and makes us feel less alone. Loneliness is so harmful to overall health that researchers are calling it “the new smoking” – equivalent to sucking back 15 cigarettes a day. 

Harness memory centres undamaged by dementia: Memory isn’t just a matter of recalling what we ate for breakfast, or where we left the keys. We also have semantic memory (general knowledge of the world), procedural memory (the skill to remember motor tasks such as riding a bike), emotional memory and other kinds stored in different parts of the brain. Music recruits multiple memory centres at once, allowing choir members with dementia to recall new songs one week to the next.

Improve mood, and possibly mental functioning: Singing or listening to music gives us a hit of dopamine, the neurochemical that brings a rush of pleasure. Enhancing mood reduces depression, freeing up valuable brain resources, according to the researchers behind the Victoria choir. This, they say, explains why choir members in the pilot study showed slight improvements in their ability to remember words from a list. They had the same brain damage from dementia, but got more mileage from the juice they had.

Dr. Stuart MacDonald, a University of Victoria psychologist involved in the study, described music a “super stimulant” for the brain.

And unlike dodgy "brain supplements" sold online, it's cheap, enjoyable and side-effect free.

 

 

Behind the scenes of my latest Globe and Mail article

I've just wrapped up my biggest ever story for The Globe and Mail – a week before going on book leave with my family for a year in France. Normally I'd be packing by now. Murphy's law, right?

I'm not complaining, though.

Hilary Jordan and her son, Mark, a month after her husband's accident in 1987. Photo courtesy Hilary Jordan

Hilary Jordan and her son, Mark, a month after her husband's accident in 1987. Photo courtesy Hilary Jordan

It's been a privilege to dive into the story of Ian Jordan, the Victoria police officer who spent 30 years in a mostly unresponsive state following a car accident on September 22, 1987. 

Heart-wrenching, too. His wife, Hilary Jordan, spent hours with me describing what it's like to care for someone who has only fleeting moments of awareness.

From the time their son was 16 months old to their 45th wedding anniversary in the hospital this spring, she did everything possible to give her brain-injured husband the best quality of life he could have. 

My editors gave me weeks to work on this assignment, and the Globe's video team joined in too.

I visited the hospital room in Victoria, B.C., where Ian Jordan spent 15 of his 30 years in care. I met a healthcare aide who helped look after his daily needs for 27 years of those years. I spoke with Ole Jorgensen, the Victoria constable who suffered devastating PTSD after his vehicle crashed into Jordan's police cruiser that fateful night.

Finally, I had a phone interview with Hilary's son, Mark Jordan, now 32. He can't remember a time when his father could walk or talk. 

But this isn't just a movie-of-the-week tearjerker. Ian Jordan's story ties in to the evolving science of consciousness. 

Scientists are still cracking the code of human consciousness.

Scientists are still cracking the code of human consciousness.

Medical understanding of the human brain has come a long way since 1987. Cutting-edge diagnostic tools have revealed that patients thought to be unaware are often more conscious than we think. Which brings me to the story scoop.

Ian Jordan had two music therapists. What could they possibly do for someone barely conscious? My first instinct was to call just one of them. But something made me persist. 

I can't say more without revealing the story's clincher. Check back here for a link once the article is published.

I'm hoping the story will run before I leave the country. (Yes, it's still a thrill to see the printed page.)

Now I'm off to pack.