The Healing Power of Melodies

Researchers are leveraging music’s powerful effects to treat dementia and pain


Ever get chills listening to a particularly moving piece of music? You can thank the salience network of the brain for that emotional jolt. Surprisingly, this region also remains an island of remembrance that is spared from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at U of U Health are looking to this area of the brain to develop music-based treatments to help alleviate anxiety in patients with dementia and recently published a paper in The Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.

For three weeks, U researchers helped participants select meaningful music and taught the patient and caregiver how to use a portable media player loaded with the song collection. “Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality,” says Jace King BS’10 MBA’14 PhD’18, now a postdoc at the U and first author of the paper. “When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive.”

Researchers used an MRI to produce images of the parts of the brain that lit up when patients listened to music, then compared those images to scans taken without music. They found that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate. “People with dementia are confronted by a world that is unfamiliar to them, which causes disorientation and anxiety,” says Jeff Anderson, a U radiologist and contributing author on the study. “We believe music will tap into the salience network of the brain that is still relatively functioning.”

In another study, U researchers found that music can also be used to help lessen pain. Mice in the study were separated into two groups—the control group was exposed to ambient noise, while the music-intervention group listened to three three-hour segments of Mozart for 21 days. When paired with music, ibuprofen reduced pain responses by 93 percent more compared to the drug alone.

“There is emerging evidence that music interventions can alleviate pain when administered either alone or in combination with other therapies,” says Cameron Metcalf BS’01 PharmD’08, a pharmacology researcher at the U.

Eventually, along with traditional painkillers, doctors could suggest apps with music therapies for patients, says U researcher Grzegorz Bulaj. “The holy grail is to combine the right drug with this new paradigm of music exposure, so we do not need as much drug for analgesic effects,” says Bulaj.

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  1. As a University if Utah graduate and Board and State Certified music therapist, I can only agree and support the research that has been done. In my clinical music therapy practice, I see the power of music consistently. Because music activates areas all throughout the brain, it is highly effective when used as a therapeutic tool with many populations.

  2. I fully agree and as a Psych grad from the UofU have self-prescribed this and thank God it worked as well as I believed it would. Mine was not as much for depression, though there was unacknowledged depression, as it was for anxiety which I deduced was generated by my depression.
    The music I played took me back to times of less responsibility, minimal depression and I don’t believe any anxiety. It took quite some time for the healthy me to remain after the music was turned off, but it did finally come to be.
    I’m very happy that you’re engaged in this research as many I’ve spoken to about my experiences with this therapy think me to be a bit off my rocker and just escaping the present and returning to earlier times, happier times. Well, with the last part of that sentence, they’re correct. What I explained to them is that the escape eradicated the stress of the present, and gradually, the feelings I experienced during the escape became dominant and overpowered my anxiety and suppressed depression.
    Another, different benefit of music on how we feel: Two days ago I had an MRI, the med assistant gave me earphones that played some of the recent music being played by KRCL. Though I was able to critique the music as good or not good, I was intrigued of how the music was much of the time in synch with the sounds of the MRI machine. What took 53 minutes, seemed like 10 minutes and I felt as though I was in a trance during the duration of the MRI and had a wonderful night’s sleep after.
    Yes, music is the answer, or solution to many issues or problems.
    Happy Thanksgiving

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