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A music therapist seeks to take away memories long lost

The upbeat song Sweet Caroline often asks listeners to sing and dance. But when music therapist Alaine Reschke-Hernandez played the song for an older person, the song evoked a sad memory and tears. That patient’s startling reaction highlights how music and the memories that accompany it can influence emotions, even years later.

Using music strategically can improve well-being, especially for seniors, says Reschke-Hernandez of the University of Kentucky at Lexington. “Music is so connected and integrated with so many different elements of our lives,” he says. From joyful celebrations to solemn ceremonies, music is part of significant events throughout life and is strongly associated with memory.

In his own practice, Reschke-Hernandez saw the benefits of music therapy. But I wanted to see how far those benefits could go. He partnered with neuroscientists to find out whether harnessing memories associated with music could positively influence the emotions of people with dementia.

Music therapist Alaine Reschke-Hernandez plays guitar for a patient. He is partnering with neuroscientists to better understand how music, memory, and emotions relate in people with dementia.Andrea Mahoney

Because memories are so personal, it is possible that music that evokes happiness in some may not. For this reason, the researchers asked participants – including 19 healthy adults and 20 people with Alzheimer’s disease – to choose songs that evoked sadness or happiness.

After listening to the self-selected music, participants rated how they felt and stated whether they remembered listening to music. Both positive and negative emotions lasted up to 20 minutes in both healthy adults and participants with Alzheimer’s disease, whether they remembered listening to music or not, the team reported in November in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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The results suggest that emotional responses to music may not depend on memory recall, says Reschke-Hernandez. “If we can help (people with dementia) have a lasting emotional response or better emotional regulation using music, well, that’s fantastic,” he says.

This information can be important to doctors and caregivers. Music can have lasting effects on a patient’s emotions and well-being, in some cases negatively. Applying music therapy without this consideration can cause more harm than good, says Melita Belgrave, a professor of music therapy at Arizona State University in Tempe. "If you're using music, you can do harm if you're not paying attention."

This type of research can also help scientists better understand memory loss in dementia. Some evidence suggests that the brain regions involved in music recognition remain relatively untouched by Alzheimer’s disease and that music may increase autobiographical memories in people with the disease (SN: 15/06/15). The study “raises this question about other types of memory that appear to be relatively intact in people with dementia,” such as unconscious memory, says co-author Edmarie Gúzman-Vélez, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston. "What can we do to take advantage of them?"

Reschke-Hernandez wants to continue building partnerships with neuroscientists and other researchers to understand exactly how music activates the memories and emotions associated with them. Finally, he hopes to replicate the study with more diverse participants. “It’s not just about looking at a diverse population of participants in terms of their culture or ethnicity, but also their age,” Reschke-Hernandez points out.

For some patients with dementia, music can be the perfect tool to explore, access, and benefit from positive emotions triggered by hidden memories. That could improve the lives of these people, even if they don’t remember.

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