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Alzheimer’s Disease: The Role of Music Therapy in Symptom Palliation

Lisa B.'s picture

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia, and an important secondary cause of death in many industrialized nations. In the United States, it is estimated that 2.4 million to 4.5 million people currently have AD (Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery). Although AD is still incurable, within the past decade, researchers have focused on music therapy as a beneficial palliative treatment for geriatric patients who have AD, as well as a variety of other neurologic disorders.

AD appears to be caused by an accumulation of neuronotoxic proteins in the cerebrum, the part of the brain involved in speech, memory and hearing. In postmortem brain cutting, AD patients usually have severe atrophy that results from extensive neuronal damage. Pathophysiologically, the abnormal neurofibrillary tangles seen in AD impair neuronal transmission, and after years of neuronal loss and synaptic degeneration, patients demonstrate profound cognitive and behavioral impairment. While the FDA has not approved disease-modifying therapies for AD, the standard treatment includes symptomatic therapy.

Although many patients with advanced AD are unable to communicate with language, music therapy has shown promise as a way for patients to express themselves, and such sensory stimulation might even slow the decline of physical, psychological, and cognitive processes. Jiska Cohen-Mansfied, a psychologist of the Research Institute of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington, has studied the manifestations of AD and reported her results in Science (1031).  She observed that the violent behaviors of patients with AD occurred when their room was dark and they were alone. The results of her investigation found that one-third of her patients decreased their violent behavior in response to music, a greater response than with psychotropic drugs, restraint, or passive neglect. Cohen-Mansfied believes that music is an effective therapy because it reduces the social isolation experienced by demented patients. While not offering a cure for AD, music therapy can clearly decrease the agitation some patients manifest. In the past, such behaviors were thought to be the result of psychosis (Barinaga 1031), but are now considered to stem from the social isolation caused by the dementia, something that music therapy is designed to target.

Many physicians and caregivers observe that even without speech, musical abilities appear to be relatively unaffected by the cognitive processing difficulties associated with AD. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurobiologist and author, described the influence of music therapy with another neurologic disorder in Musicophilia (2007):

In the third month after being struck by lightning, then, Cicoria - once an easygoing, genial family man, almost indifferent to music - was inspired, even possessed, by music, and scarcely had time for anything else. It began to dawn on him that perhaps he had been "saved" for a special reason. "I came to think," he said, "that the only reason I had been allowed to survive was the music." (Sacks Interview)

Cuban composer Leo Brouwer stated that music is like telling stories (Degmečić 288), and Carl Leichter, the Esonian semiotic, claimed that music and musical expression originates in inner psychic tensions, which search for relaxation through music.

The association of pieces of music with certain memories, and the ability for music to stimulate the recollection of these past events, might be an additional benefit of music therapy. New York University psychiatrist Barry Reisberg explained that wealthy women with late-stage AD, whose caregivers paid for professional attention and care for them, continue to go to social events and seem to enjoy life (Barinaga 1032). This is contrasted with other women that are bed-bound and withdrawn because they did not maintain their previous social life.  

To be effective, music therapy must be tailored to the functional capacity of each individual patient.  Derek Prinsley, director of the National Ageing Research Institute (1976-1986) in Melbourne, Australia, has advised that music therapy should be based on treatment objectives including social interaction, mood improvement, speech stimulation, mental process organization, sensory stimulation and motor integration ("Music and Alzheimer's disease-assessment and therapy: discussion paper" 95). With these goals, a music therapist must develop a specific treatment plan.  This might include composing music with patients, leading a group music session, or assembling a playlist of songs.


Music might even have a role in the evaluation of patients for cognitive impairment, since it can discriminate between minor language deficits in a way that more standard verbal examinations (such as the Mini-Mental State Examination) cannot. ("Music and Alzheimer's disease-assessment and therapy: discussion paper" 93). This might be because most language processing is dominant in one hemisphere of the brain, while playing and listening to music involves the interaction of more areas in both cerebral hemispheres ("Music and Alzheimer's disease-assessment and therapy: discussion paper" 93).

Although effective treatment has lagged behind our understanding of the pathophysiology of AD, music therapy has been shown to improve the quality of life for many patients. Furthermore, music may also assume a role alongside verbal examinations in testing for subtle language disorders. 

Works Cited

Aldridge, David. "Music and Alzheimer's disease-assessment and therapy: discussion paper." Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 86 (1993): 93-95.

Aldridge, David. "The Music of the Body: Music Therapy in Medical Settings." The Journal of Mind-Body Health. 9.1 (1993): 17-35.

Barinaga, Marcia. "Alzheimer's Treatments that Work Now." Science. 282.5391 (1998): 1030-1032.

Degmečić, Dunja, Ivan Požgain, and Pavo Filaković. "Music as Therapy / Glazba kao terapija." International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music. 36.2 (2005): 287-300.

Plassman, B.L., et al. "Prevalence of Dementia in the United States: The Aging, Demographics, and Memory Study." Neuroepidemiology. 29 (2007): 125-132.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery. Bethesda: NIH Publication, 2008.  

Sacks, Oliver. Interview. All Things Considered. NPR. 21 Nov. 2007.


Serendip Visitor's picture

music and alzheimer's

I have seen first hand how music affects someone with Alzheimer's. When my mother began having difficulty finishing a sentence or completing a thought, if she sang it she was able to share her thought without any difficulty.

Freid Fighting Alzheimer's picture

Freid Fighting Alzheimer

A very well said. Great information about alzheimer and I want to add also about alzheimer. Alzheimer’s destroys brain cells, leading to memory loss and impairments with cognition and behavior that may be severe enough to affect work and social life. Various research and scientific tests indicate that highly potent compounds called xanthones present in mangosteen can help resolve the inflammation within brain tissue. These studies are quite promising indeed as they reveal that managosteen is capable of addressing the inflammation in the brain that is being linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Thank you

Paul Grobstein's picture

Alzheimer's and music

"an effective therapy because it reduces the social isolation"

An intriguing idea, leading to several further thoughts. Why would music, as opposed to other possible inputs, reduce "social isolation"? Are there more direct (ie social) ways to achieve the same results? If so, why turn to music?

Emily Wiggins's picture

in response to Paul Grobstein's question

You'd be surprised at how social music experiences can be! I am a music therapist and have found that music has been an incredible tool in developing social skills with various individuals. Although I do not have extensive experience working with those with dementia, I can speak to your general question (however long ago it was posed) of how music can reduce social isolation.

Most of our social experiences are centered around verbal communication. This was painfully noticeable to me growing up as a hearing impaired individual because too often I got "lost" with what was going on verbally and was therefore quite socially isolated in many circumstances. So when we are working with individuals who have impaired verbal language processing in any way, they will therefore have some kind of social detriments.

Music is a social experience in which those difficulties of verbal processing is bypassed. When music therapists speak of music being a social experience, they are generally referring to being involved in some process other than simply listening to music. Dancing, singing together, playing instruments, writing music together, etc. All of these experiences involve more than one individual, therefore being a social experience. And because music often reaches us emotionally, people engage. Because music often is associated with earlier memories, people engage. Because music uses other parts of the brain than other methods, people who might otherwise have difficulty engaging CAN engage.

Whether or not there are "more direct" ways than music to reduce social isolation - I do not know. I believe that engaging in music IS a direct social experience and has some added benefits of the fact that MOST people connect to music in some way. I'm sure there is research to cite everything that I've described, but I'm simply speaking to my own personal experiences of seeing how music HAS helped so many individuals decrease social isolation and has helped so many individuals develop, expand, and maintain their social skills.

Emily Wiggins, NMT, MT-BC