Musical Memories in Your Brain - Evidence From the Dementias

in medicine

Ever wondered which region of your brain is important for recognizing famous tunes?  According to a research article published recently in the scholarly journal Brain by scientists at Neuroscience Research Australia in Sydney, damage to the right anterior temporal lobe in people with a particular form of dementia leaves them unable to recognize famous tunes.

In the study, famous tunes like Happy Birthday, Jingle Bells and other melodies which were highly familiar to Australians were played to 20 healthy older adults and 27 individuals with a diagnosis of dementia. Intermixed among these famous tunes were some imposter tunes which were constructed with the same notes, intervals and rhythms but rearranged in a different order.

music knowledge and brain area

Figure A shows areas of brain shrinkage in semantic dementia patients compared to healthy control participants. Figure B shows brain areas that are important for the recognition of famous tunes [red], famous faces [blue], everyday sounds [yellow] and naming objects [green]. The area in purple represents the overlap between the recognition of famous tunes and famous faces.

In those 27 individuals, half had Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia while the rest had a rare type of dementia called semantic dementia, which causes individuals to lose their understanding of the meanings of words, objects, sounds and other concepts.

Those with Alzheimer’s disease were able to pick out the famous songs as successfully as healthy older adults. However, the majority of those with semantic dementia could not. Interestingly, three individuals with semantic dementia were an exception and were well able to recognize famous songs like the control group.


Sharpley Hsieh, PhD student and the first author, supervised by Professor John Hodges. The published research study is a component of her PhD thesis. Photo credit: Anne Graham, Communications Manager at Neuroscience Research Australia.

Analysis of the participants' MRI brain scans showed that in those that could not pick the famous tunes from imposter ones had shrinkage in a part of the brain known as the right anterior temporal pole, which is located behind the ear.

Interestingly, the same area was also associated with the ability to recognize other unique memories, like famous people.

The same participants in the study were also asked to pick out the pictures of famous people, such as Bob Hawke, Mel Gibson and Richard Nixon, from among pictures of unknown individuals who looked visually similar to those that were famous.

Those patients with semantic dementia who were able to recognize famous tunes were also able to identify pictures of famous people.

Findings from this study provide valuable insights into the structure and function of different parts of the brain. It also has implications for the diagnosis and potential therapies that might be useful in the differing dementias.

Musical activities in nursing homes, for example, which are known to be enjoyed by individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, may not have the same benefit to those with other dementia types.

Source article: Neural basis of music knowledge: evidence from the dementias. Hsieh S, Hornberger M, Piguet O, Hodges JR. Brain. 2011 Aug 21. PMID:21857031.

Share this