Music is an access key to memory, researchers say.

Music that holds a special meaning to an individual can stimulate the brain in ways that may help maintain higher levels of functioning, according to a new study.

The results support personalized, music-based interventions for people with dementia, investigators say.

Researchers at the University of Toronto and Unity Health Toronto recruited 14 study volunteers with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease. Eight were musicians. For one hour a day for three weeks, all participants listened to curated playlists of music that was long-known to them and relevant to their lives, such as music played at their wedding. 

The participants underwent MRI scans before and after the listening periods to assess changes to brain function and structure. They also listened to both long-known and newly composed music one hour before the scans. The new music was similar in style to the known music, but held no personal association.

When listening to the new music, brain activity was mainly observed in the auditory cortex, which is associated with listening. In contrast, when listening to the long-known music, participants’ brains showed signs of engagement in areas associated with higher levels of brain function and memory.

Repeated exposure to well-known music that has deep connections to important life events improved cognition in all participants, stimulating neural connectivity in these key brain areas, Michael Thaut, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto, reported.

“Whether you’re a lifelong musician or have never even played an instrument, music is an access key to your memory, your prefrontal cortex,” Thaut said.

“Typically, it’s very difficult to show positive brain changes in Alzheimer’s patients. These preliminary yet encouraging results show improvement in the integrity of the brain, opening the door to further research on therapeutic applications of music for people with dementia—musicians and non-musicians alike,” he concluded.

Full findings were published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.