This Is Your Brain On Music

OSHER explores the links between art and health.

You can still sing a hymn that you learned as a preschooler, or a song that you danced to in high school, but you cannot remember the name of a 7th grade teacher, or even your present phone number. There's a reason for that. Music is stored in a part (or parts) of your brain (the auditory cortex) different from the part (the hippocampus) that is responsible for short-term memory; it's a relatively new discovery by researchers at Dartmouth. In a recent OSHER course, Dr. Robert Santulli talked about how patients with dementia and memory problems (5 million in the US) can remember and respond to music well into the advanced stages of their illness.

Santulli, now a retired physician, continues to teach and write about Alzheimer's disease.

Santulli was a guest lecturer in Take Two Van Goghs and Call Me in the Morning, a course on the role of art in medicine taught by DHMC's Arts Program Director Marianne Barthel. Santulli was quick to stress that music will not cure nor slow the progression of dementia, but can provide support and increase quality of life for  patients, who often suffer from social isolation and lowered self esteem. To that end, he started The Recollections, a choral group of people with dementia, their caregivers, and Dartmouth students. They meet twice a month to practice and have given concerts, including one at DHMC. According to Santulli, who based this project on one in New York (called, charmingly, The Unforgettables) the intergenerational nature of this Upper Valley group is unique and adds younger voices and youthful perspectives. A short documentary about the group can be viewed here

Harpist Margaret Stephens, part of DHMC's Creative Arts Program, provides therapeutic music for patients in the cancer center and the palliative care program. Recently, she played the harp in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for infants, their parents, and the unit's staff. Stephens demonstrated her techniques to the class by playing snippets of classical, Celtic, traditional folk, and the ever-popular Edelweiss for OSHER students. The absolute hit of the class, however, were the "harp massages," in which smaller, flat Reverie harps were placed on students' backs and then strummed; the vibrations soothe, and in my case, I even heard the music differently. 

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Finally, the film Alive Inside is barely able to be described. It shows music, in the form of iPods individually programmed with favorite tunes for use by nursing home patients--many totally uncommunicative, suffering from dementia and other mental illnesses--who are transformed. They cannot speak, but they sing. One gentleman, silent and without expression, listens to gospel music, removes his headset, and begins to speak coherently of his memories of Cab Calloway. A woman pushes her walker away to dance, and an elderly Alzheimer's patient sings love songs to his wife. A doctor laments that medical insurance will cover $1000 per month medications without question, but for  "a $40 iPod," coverage is close to impossible. The film is available on Netflix.

The next performance of the choral group, The Recollections, is scheduled for 12:00 noon on Saturday, March 4, 2017 at the Howe Library in Hanover, NH. For more information, please call the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center at (603) 653-3460.


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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge

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