Since September, a group of about 30 Alzheimer’s and dementia patients have gathered once a week in the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis, not for any conventional treatment or therapy but to sing in a choir.
The Giving Voice chorus, founded by Mary Lenard and Marge Ostroushko, works using one of the most basic features of the human brain: the tendency to get songs stuck in our heads.
Patients who can barely speak when they enter the music center start belting out songs in a way that the choir’s founders describe as “magical.”
“We know that music is stored in a part of the brain that’s last affected by Alzheimer’s disease,” Lenard, who previously served as the Alzheimer’s Association executive director for Minnesota and North Dakota, told USA Today. “The emotions, the joy, the fun, the humor, that came with singing when they were 18 or 24 or 40 comes back.”
Lenard isn’t the only person reaching out to Alzheimer’s patients through music. Singer/songwriter Vanessa Campaign from Beaver Falls, PA recently released a new Christmas album in conjunction with a company called Alzheimer’s Music Connect.
“Memories: The Songs and Spirit of Christmas” uses what the president of Alzheimer’s Music Connect, Ron Gregory, calls Altus Oscillation. Gregory began to delve into the technology when his own mother started showing signs of Alzheimer’s.
“I gravitated toward music as a way to kind of keep her connected,” he told the Beaver County Times. “The more research I did into music as a therapy … I felt like this is the solution, it’s the music.”
Gregory teamed up with experts and neurologists to explore how the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s processes music differently. They discovered that alpha waves, which cause relaxation in most people, are less present in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient.
“Various studies have shown that music stimulates various brain activity, particularly in memory care patients,” says Laurie Malone, Managing Partner and CEO of Golden Heart Scottsdale. “Finding out their favorite music when they were younger and playing it for them has produced tremendous results in reawakening people.”
Altus Oscillation buries alpha waves in the music and synchronizes them with calming beats and rhythms. Though alpha waves are barely audible, Gregory claims that Alzheimer’s patients become more relaxed and in-the-moment after hearing the enhanced music. Neurologist Lorianne Avino confirmed his findings and added that the enhanced music also amplified brain activity.
“There’s no cure for this disease,” Gregory said, “but there’s a way — and the research shows there’s a way — that these people’s memories are stimulated by music.”
Lenard, whose choir operates on a similar principle, would likely agree. “It’s a time for them to remember who they were before the disease came,” she told USA Today. “They don’t feel like they have Alzheimer’s when they’re singing.”