Some senses are more evocative than others. Scent is one of them. A whiff of a certain perfume, flower or even a favorite food cooking can transport us back in time almost instantly (this was actually the basis of the 1984 novel Jitterbug Perfume).

Another is sound, particularly music. Almost all of us have a favorite song or two that can return us to a treasured moment in our lives. Music can also affect the emotions in profound ways, ranging from falling in love to inspiring one to charge into battle. What is most amazing however is that the part of the human brain that responds to music is immune to Alzheimer’s Disease.

A clinical study conducted at the University of Utah has been examining this region of the brain, known as the salience network, in hopes of developing methods of treating the anxiety suffered by Alzheimer’s patients. The salience network is what creates what many laypeople call a “vibe” or a “buzz.” The scientific term is autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR).

This response can be triggered by numerous sensory stimuli, including touch, sight and scent, as well as sound. It is that tingling sensation that one feels in the head and neck when experiencing strong emotions connected with memory. Scientists do not fully understand why this occurs, but previous studies suggest that triggering ASMR can help in treating insomnia and depression. The current research has also found that personalized music can affect the mood of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

In the recent study, the research team at the University of Utah Health had participants choose pieces of music that were meaningful to them, then loaded these recordings on to portable media players. The subjects then underwent MRI scans while listening to brief sound clips as well as silence. What they discovered was that activating the salience network activated other regions of the brain, resulting in better communication.

“Language and visual memory pathways are damaged early as the disease progresses,” noted Dr. Norman Foster, head of the university’s Center for Alzheimer’s Care and senior author of the study. “Personalized music programs can activate the brain, especially for patients who are losing contact with their environment.”

The results of the study are only preliminary. There were only 17 participants, each of whom underwent one MRI session. The researchers are uncertain as to whether the effects are temporary or long-term. Nonetheless, co-author Dr. Jeff Anderson is optimistic. “No one says playing music will be a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease,” he acknowledged. “But it might make the symptoms more manageable, decrease the cost of care and improve a patient’s quality of life.”

The study was published earlier this year in the Journal of Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.