Controlled Laboratory Studies

Several controlled laboratory studies have demonstrated the potential benefit of music therapy for Alzheimer’s disease patients. Music has been used in the treatment of dementia for many years, and the scientific evidence to support its value continues to grow. A number of different types of music therapy have been studied, from listening to music, singing songs, dancing, playing instruments, and performing rhythmic movements to songs, to video games that incorporate music, physical activity, and cognitive stimulation. These studies have shown that music therapy can help to improve multiple aspects of cognition (e.g., attention, processing speed, memory, executive functions), reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improve sleep in AD patients. Music activates emotional areas of the brain and can have a calming effect, consistent with its ability to reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone involved in the stress response. Reducing cortisol can also support cognition, which helps to explain how music improves cognitive performance. There is also evidence that music can increase levels of other hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, and neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which additionally support cognition and mood. Playing and listening to music involves memory and attention, and playing music requires precise planning and highly coordinated movements. Thus, music therapy can ultimately serve as cognitive training – by regularly ‘exercising’ the brain regions underlying these functions, music therapy can benefit other aspects of daily life that rely on the same regions. Music therapy can be an attractive option for dementia patients, because of its convenience and lack of side effects. It should be started as early as possible in the disease progression, and is best used alongside (not as a replacement for) medications.

Nelson Chia