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Monday, July 26, 2021

Memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease are recovered through music

Photo courtesy Debbie Aldridge
Photo courtesy Debbie Aldridge

In recognition of Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness month Dr. Petr Janata, UC Davis professor and researcher in the department of psychology and the Center for the Mind and Brain, visited Carlton Plaza, a senior home in Davis, to present his ongoing research of the relationship between music and memories.

The association of music and memories is not exactly a new concept. Imagine driving to work and you just happen to be listening passively to the radio when all of a sudden the song sucks you into the memory of a nasty breakup or maybe your first kiss.

Dr. Joel Krueger, UC Davis alumnus and philosophy lecturer at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, explained in an email interview that he has been working on a number of issues in philosophy of the mind and cognitive science, philosophy of music and Asian and comparative philosophy.

“When we remember a past event , we’re not simply summoning an inventory of ‘cold’ facts,” Dr. Krueger said, “we are also summoning an ‘affective frame’.” This affective frame, according to Dr. Krueger, can be defined as an “emotional coloring” that shapes how people remember.

He also explains that emotions are often associated with music because it plays a significant role in establishing the affective frame of an experience.

“Hearing a certain tune later in life can immediately bring back various feelings that are part of the content of a given memory,” he said.

For example, when Dr. Krueger hears “Red, Red Wine” by UB40, he says he is reminded of his high school dance during his freshman year when he danced with his crush. He explains that not only does he remember the time and place, but also a varied mix of feelings. He lists “nervousness, giddiness, elation, self-consciousness, fear, etc.”

This relationship of music and memories even spreads into the theater world. In the late 1800s, Constantin Stanislavski, Russian stage actor and director, harnessed the effects of the association of music and memories into a method to achieve a natural and believable performance. It was a facet of what is known as “sense memory” — one of the five components of his method.

Sense memory, for actors, is one of the “tools in their toolkit,” as Dr. Bella Merlin described, that allows them to get into character by way of calling upon emotions affiliated with memories from their past.

Dr. Merlin, a former UC Davis professor in the Theatre & Dance department, now teaches in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Digital Production at UC Riverside. She is also a practicing actor, director and author with a number of books including one on the “psychophysical” approach to acting.

According to Merlin, humans use sense memory all the time by basing every decision on the five senses.

It is not the fact that memories can resurface in result of a certain song, but rather the “how” and the “why” that interests Dr. Janata and his team of researchers.

They began studying  music’s ability to evoke autobiographical memories back in 2009. Their initial sample was comprised of college students. The researchers mapped the area of activity in the brain while having the subjects listen to 30-second excerpts of music that would hopefully trigger a memory. This all occurred while the subjects’ brain activity was recorded by using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). Music was chosen randomly from the top 100 charts from when the subjects were 7-19 years old. After each excerpt, the subjects would then answer a series of questions such as: Was the song familiar? Did you enjoy it? Did the song remind you of a particular event/person/place/object?

Through the interview process, it became clear to Dr. Janata that the memories began to take on the form of a story or autobiography. Below are some of the responses from certain songs that were played during the tests. We can easily see that music can provoke positive or sentimental memories as well as negative memories.

‘‘One Call Away’’ by Chingy & Jason Weaver

‘‘I was in junior high.’’

“Heaven’’ by Nu Flavor

“I was not quite 18 yet and my boyfriend seemed like everything for me in this world, I hadn’t gone to college yet, so he was all I knew.’’

‘‘You Don’t Know My Name’’ by Alicia Keys

‘‘I was young and crazy and I was so in love, so

in love.’’

‘‘Pieces of Me’’ by Ashlee Simpson

‘‘I was finishing high school starting college away from

my boyfriend we talked on the phone a lot.’’

‘‘Hit ’Em Up Style (Oops!)’’ by Blu Cantrell

‘‘I was beginning to mature, no longer innocent

I realized guys are all the same cheating, dogs,

and bastards.’’

During the presentation last Wednesday, Dr. Janata played an excerpt of “The Girl from Ipanema” by A.C. Jobin for the audience. When he asked if any memories were evoked by the song, almost all of the spectators nodded their heads yes.

In any case, memories can be evoked by a specific song, a familiar chord in an unfamiliar song, and/or the moral of the lyrics. It only matters that the memory comes forward.

During the Q&A portion of last Wednesday’s event, an audience member asked, “Can a song only trigger a memory once?” To which Dr. Janata replied that in his research he has been careful to stay clear of playing the same song to the same subject twice due to his fear of only causing the subject to remember having to listen to the song for research purposes and regurgitate the same response from before.

Photo courtesy of Petr Janata
Photo courtesy of Petr Janata

Dr. Janata’s next discovery was that you could see in the brain which memories that surfaced were more vivid than others.

Approaching this area of study, Dr. Janata’s hypothesis stated, “Music, memories, and emotions are linked in the medial prefrontal cortex.” He was correct.

The medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is the area of the brain located behind the forehead. Coincidentally, it is one of the last parts of the brain to atrophy due to Alzheimer’s.

After the interviews with the college students, Dr. Janata was able to infer that the more aggressive or vivid memories were reflected in the amount of activity in the dorsal (upper) region of the MPFC.

It was this discovery that lead Dr. Janata to further his research in trying to construct a playlist specifically produced for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

“Based upon the behavioral evidence that when you play music to an Alzheimer’s patient, they light up and they might start talking,” Dr. Janata said.

The playlist would not be a cure by any means — the memories fade away when the music does — but it would improve their quality of life by inducing certain emotions when a song is playing. Music could help calm them in moments of distress and make them happy as well.

Similar to creating this form of treatment for Alzheimer’s, Dr. Janata explained that this can also be used for depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This solution can already be seen in daily life and also in Dr. Merlin’s classroom at UC Riverside.

“There is no denying — I was talking to my students only the other day— I was asking them, ‘How many of you listen to music?’ Most people are walking around the campus with their iPhones or iPods creating their own musical score to affect their emotions. Everyone is using the sense memory of sound to constantly alter their emotions,” she said.

Dr. Merlin uses music in all of her acting classes. From the moment they begin, music is played in order to set the mood or tone of the class and to get each student in a “collective emotional state.” The music she most often makes use of are film scores. She explained that film scores are specifically made to make the audience feel a certain way in order for the scene to increase in intensity and for them to empathize with the characters.

The MPFC, while known to be the hub for music and memories, was also explained during Dr. Janata’s presentation to be where social skills or decisions provoked by morals are located.

Dr. Krueger, based upon his studies of psychology, said that music is also linked to primary intersubjectivity — a person’s ability to empathically interact with and understand other people without having to rely on higher-level ‘theory of mind’ abilities.

Music is linked to primary intersubjectivity, according to Dr. Krueger,  because of its ubiquity.

“As far as we know, all cultures have music, and they seem to use it much the same way – namely, to regulate emotions and coordinate social actions,” he said.

Babies are similar to extreme Alzheimer’s Disease patients, in that they cannot communicate verbally and often cannot control their emotions or behavior but can still process and react to music.

“Many studies indicate that babies listen to music carefully and respond to it in highly sensitive ways,” Dr. Krueger said. He lists premature infants’ ability to  change the tempo of their breathing, vocalizing and movements to match the lullaby being sang. Babies as young as two months old, Dr. Krueger reported, are capable of discerning musical properties such as tempo and melody.

Dr. Krueger interprets this evidence by saying the early practices of listening to music are, “instances of social training.” From which he is able to conclude that music enables us to practice the skills necessary in order to engage or participate in social interactions.

“Music is a tool for exploring our emotions, developing empathy, and learning how to connect and share with others,” he said.

For the next phase of his research, Dr. Janata received the 2014 GRAMMY Foundation Grant. He is still looking for other sources of funding, however, in order to increase his sample size. The only requirements of eligibility to participate in the study include, being “able to hear the music and questions, and be able to respond verbally.”

 

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