What is Alzheimer’s and how does music therapy alleviate the stages of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Written by Amy Le and Tamara Andrijanic as part of the collaboration with United Under Arts

What is Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s Disease is one of the most common forms of dementia, and it is a chronic and deadly disease that primarily affects the elderly through memory loss. The disease currently has seven known stages, with each stage creating progressively worse impacts that degrade the brain and body. In the brain, there are hundreds of millions of neurons that communicate together to create a functional human being. However, in Alzheimer’s Disease, as the patient becomes older, the neurons in their brain cannot transport electrical signals effectively because of different types of protein clumps forming, which then block cellular processes from happening. These abnormal protein growths are otherwise known as plaques and tangles. Plaques are specifically formed when the beta-amyloid protein aggregates together to create a protein clump. Neurofibrillary tangles are similar to plaques but form with the tau protein. Microtubules, structures inside healthy neurons, are supported by tau, but in Alzheimers’ Disease, the tau protein detaches from these microtubules and begin to attach to each other, creating neurofibrillary tangles. As a result, these protein plaques kill neurons which prevents the body from performing cognitive and physical processes. As more neurons begin to die, the brain will begin to shrink, and brain activity will decrease.

What are the symptoms?

This leads to the afflicted experiencing cognitive symptoms such as mental decline, disorientation and confusion, difficulty concentrating, and inability to recognize common things or form logical conclusions. Behavioral symptoms include agitation or aggression, lack of restraint, meaningless repetition of words or phrases, irritability, mood swings, and difficulty with basic self care and routines. Psychological symptoms commonly experienced are depression, hallucination, or paranoia. It is also common for the patient to experience an inability to properly control muscles, jumble his or her speech, and become forgetful of eating or obtain a loss of appetite.

What is the treatment?

No cure currently exists for this disease, but self management and medication can aid in the alleviation of symptoms, especially when in the early stages. These medications include cognition enhancing medication, which improves mental function, lowers blood pressure, and helps alleviate mood swings. Studies have also shown that physical exercise can aid in the maintenance of nerve cells in the hippocampus, which helps with learning and memory. Routine and self care is also extremely important for patients in order to minimize the impact that this memory loss and general confusion has on their lives.

How does music therapy help?

Although there are currently no cures for this terrible disease, there is hope that the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be alleviated through music therapy. A study published on the NCBI website found that singing improved mood orientation and general cognitive function. Furthermore, when songs of the sad genre were played, it was observed that Alzheimer Disease patients were capable of recalling memories. MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, was also utilized in this research to find that there was increased brain activity in the right angular gyrus and the left lingual gyrus. The left lingual gyrus is located in the occipital lobe and is thought to play a role in processing visual memories, such as letters. The angular gyrus, on the other hand, is located in the parietal lobe and plays a part in complex language processes, such as writing. While both of these parts of the brain differ in complex function, they both regulate the process of memory. In addition, music therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and endorphins, which promote the feeling of pleasure and wellbeing in a person. Although Alzheimer’s Disease may seem hopeless, music therapy provides a beacon of light for those who suffer from it.