Researchers discover the anatomic reasons for the persistence of musical memory in alzheimer patients

June 19, 2015, Max Planck Society
The region for musical memory (top: red, otherwise surrounded by a white border) compared with other regions of the brain of an Alzheimer's patient: areas with maximum neuronal loss (2nd row from above), decrease in metabolism (3rd row from above.) And amyloid protein aggregations (bottom row) are red, areas with minimal changes are shown in purple (in the left and right column, the left brain is shown from different perspectives, respectively). Credit: MPI f. Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

In comparison to other memory functions, long-term musical memory in Alzheimer patients often remains intact and functional for a surprisingly long time. However, until now, the underlying causes of this phenomenon have remained in the dark. In a recent study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, the University of Amsterdam and INSERM Caen have pinpointed the location of musical memory for the first time and shown that this area of the brain remains largely intact despite progressive degeneration of the brain in Alzheimer patients.

Surprisingly, Alzheimer's often spares long-term musical memory. In practice, carers and therapists take advantage of this phenomenon to stimulate their patients with music. It is often possible for music to reactivate memories, emotions and impressions. In some cases, patients are able to sing lyrics of songs even when speaking has become almost impossible for them.

However, this phenomenon has remained scientifically unexplained. "This is the first neuroscientific study to provide an anatomic explanation for the persistence of musical memory," says Jörn-Henrik Jacobsen, scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and the University of Amsterdam.

To shed light on the matter, the researchers first located the seat of long-term musical memory in the brain with the help of functional ultra-high-field magnetic resonance imaging. For this purpose, they ran a behavioural experiment using a set of song stimuli taken from the top 10 pop hit charts in Germany between 1977 and 2007, children's songs, oldies and well-known classical pieces. The aim was to identify melodies that the study participants were familiar with. "An individual's musical experience and musical memories are largely shaped by social and cultural circumstances. It was therefore important to avoid a subjective choice of songs and to have a group selection instead," Jacobsen explains. The chosen musical excerpts were combined with totally unknown but characteristically similar pieces of music in groups of three.

While being monitored by MRI, the subjects listened to groups of three musical samples consisting of a long-known song, a song they had just heard and a completely unknown melody. The data were then analyzed with the help of statistical pattern-recognition methods. The scientists were able to conclude from the various active which of the three categories (long-known, recently heard, unknown) the study participants had just heard. They identified a region in the supplementary motor cerebral cortex that is responsible for long-term musical memory – an area that is involved in movement. "Our study shows that the temporal lobes are not essential for musical memory, as had previously been suspected, but rather areas associated with complex motor functions," Jacobsen explains.

In a second step, the scientists compared the areas responsible for musical memory in the healthy group with anatomic findings from a study with Alzheimer patients. In the process, they considered three important features of the disease: loss of neurons, reduced metabolism and deposition of amyloid protein in the affected brain areas.

They found that the brain area that had been identified as the seat of long-term musical memory does in fact lose fewer neurons than the rest of the brain. Also, metabolism in this area does not decline as much. The extent of amyloid deposits is similar to that in other areas of the brain but does not lead to the deficits otherwise associated with advanced stages of the disease. The brain areas responsible for long-term musical memory are therefore often affected least by neuron loss and typical metabolic disorders in Alzheimer patients.

The results of the study indicate that long-term musical memory is better preserved in Alzheimer patients than short-term memory, autobiographical long-term memory and speech. It can therefore remain largely intact even in advanced stages of the disease. "Our findings also lend support to a theory previously proposed in connection with other studies that found stronger network connections between the anterior gyrus cinguli and other nodes in Alzheimer patients. This suggests that this area of the also provides specific compensatory functions as the disease progresses," Jacobsen says, in explanation of the results' importance.

The scientists hope their investigations will give fresh impetus to research into the poorly understood mechanisms of long-term musical memory in Alzheimer patients. "In future, a sound understanding of the complex relationships could lead to a real therapeutic benefit of music in patient care," Jacobsen believes.

Explore further: Hippocampal activity during music listening exposes the memory-boosting power of music

More information: "Why musical memory can be preserved in advanced Alzheimer's disease." DOI:

Related Stories

Hippocampal activity during music listening exposes the memory-boosting power of music

June 19, 2014
For the first time the hippocampus—a brain structure crucial for creating long-lasting memories—has been observed to be active in response to recurring musical phrases while listening to music. Thus, the hippocampal involvement ...

Alzheimer's culprit causes memory loss even before brain degeneration

May 29, 2015
The study, published May 29 in the open access Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports, reveals a direct link between the main culprit of Alzheimer's disease and memory loss.

Musical study challenges long-held view of left brain-right brain split

June 4, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Ever been stuck in traffic when a feel-good song comes on the radio and suddenly your mood lightens?

Molecules involved in Alzheimer's have a role in weakening of connections between neurons

May 27, 2015
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting over 44 million people worldwide. Inside the brain, Alzheimer's disease is characterized by loss of neurons, and presence of abnormal tangles and plaques ...

Listening to classical music modulates genes that are responsible for brain functions

March 13, 2015
Although listening to music is common in all societies, the biological determinants of listening to music are largely unknown. According to a latest study, listening to classical music enhanced the activity of genes involved ...

Musical training increases blood flow in the brain

May 7, 2014
Research by the University of Liverpool has found that brief musical training can increase the blood flow in the left hemisphere of our brain. This suggests that the areas responsible for music and language share common brain ...

Recommended for you

New immunotherapy improves MS symptoms

November 20, 2018
A world-first clinical trial of a new cellular immunotherapy for multiple sclerosis (MS) has improved symptoms and quality of life for the majority of patients.

To predict the future, the brain has two clocks

November 20, 2018
That moment when you step on the gas pedal a split second before the light changes, or when you tap your toes even before the first piano note of Camila Cabello's "Havana" is struck. That's anticipatory timing.

White matter pathway and individual variability in human stereoacuity

November 20, 2018
Researchers in the Center for Information and Neural Networks (CiNet), the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology and Osaka University have identified a human white matter pathway associated with ...

Researchers hope to be able to replace dysfunctional brain cells

November 20, 2018
A new study by researchers at Karolinska Institutet supports the theory that replacement of dysfunctional immune cells in the brain has therapeutic potential for neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's disease. ...

MDMA makes people cooperative, but not gullible

November 19, 2018
New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better—but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at how MDMA impacts cooperative ...

How the brain switches between different sets of rules

November 19, 2018
Cognitive flexibility—the brain's ability to switch between different rules or action plans depending on the context—is key to many of our everyday activities. For example, imagine you're driving on a highway at 65 miles ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.