I began working today singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with Linda Maguire, a musician and neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. She smiles on YouTube, telling me to breathe in with love and out with forgiveness; I am feeling relaxed and buoyant, stretching my arms out like a ballerina. My neck seems to have grown a bit. Music releases dopamine, Maguire explains, a neurotransmitter linked to reward, “particularly in the front part of the brain, as well as the motor cortex.” Singing can give us “vitality and buzz—in your teeth, and lips, and bones of your face.”
Singing can also bring vitality to the brain: a new study led by Maguire shows that four months’ of singing sessions leads to significant cognitive improvements and satisfaction with life among people with dementia.
Maguire and her colleagues studied 45 people aged 70 to 99 (85 percent of them women) in assisted living care and in a secure ward for dementia patients. Each participated in 50-minute Maguire-led sessions three times weekly, singing a range of songs including Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Edelweiss,” Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender,” and the Woodie Guthrie song “This Land is Your Land.”
“One striking phenomenon in dementia is an ability to participate in group singing sessions and to recall both melodies and lyrics of familiar songs,” the authors of the study write. Indeed, Alzheimer’s patients who sang in the sessions (in contrast to those who merely listened) scored significantly higher in a post-treatment cognitive test. The secure-ward residents had the highest “satisfaction with life” scores among all the groups in the research.
In most music therapy programs for the elderly, the authors say, “the music chosen is often simplistic and does not challenge the participants.” In contrast, a trained singer who offered instructions on vocal technique, breathing, and musical style led these sessions. That, they say, may have played a role in the cognitive improvement.
But I wondered what brain mechanisms can sustain the ability to sing among people who may be unable to speak or remember the names of their friends and family members. So I called neuroscientist Jane Flinn of George Mason University, a co-author of the study. She mentioned Clive Wearing, a British musicologist and conductor who experienced total amnesia after contracting Herpes simplex encephalitis. That illness destroyed his hippocampus, the region of the brain that forms and stores memories. As a result, in his own words, “the brain has been totally inactive: day and night the same—no thoughts at all.” But he can still sing and play the piano.
“Music does not seem to be hippocampally based,” Flinn told me, “and the hippocampus is what goes in Alzheimer’s.” In a follow-up email, she wrote, “Singing seems to allow one to activate the brain and retrieve old memories, by a method which bypasses the hippocampus, and this may slow the rate of progression of the disease.” It may help their caregivers as well: “When you sing with somebody, they do respond, so that’s very positive for the caregiver because then there is a bond between them,” Flinn said. “Because it’s exercise it’s making the person less isolated, and isolation is very bad because the brain is just sitting there doing nothing.”
Now that I know that, I’m off to practice my rendition of “Maria.” I learned the lyrics as a child and hope to still sing it with gusto in my old age.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.