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.