As researchers learn more and more about the link between music and memory, innovators are finding ways to ease the suffering of patients with dementia-related ailments and those looking after them.
Meet the Vera app, a tool that uses music to open up a small window of lucidity between patient and caregiver.
Vera, which has been in the App Store for a little over a month and is also available by subscription at veramusic.com, taps into the millions of songs available in the vast Universal Music Group catalogue stretching back to the early 20th century.
The idea, said Nicc Johnson, co-inventor of the app, is that an important song from the patient’s past can temporarily transport them to the present, allowing for clear communication between caregiver and patient.
“The reason that it works with music is because dementia — and I’m oversimplifying — shuts down the short-term memory part of the brain,” said Johnson, who is CEO of Music Health.
“The area that is generally not impacted by dementia — or if it is, is at the very late stages — is our long-term memory.”
Johnson said nostalgia is a key factor in obtaining positive results.
“When somebody is on their journey of dementia, they regress further and further back to memories: 10, 20, 30 years back,” said the musicologist. “If you find music from those periods of time, then you can unlock that emotion and memory. That acts as a trigger for stimulation of the other parts of the brain.
“In that moment, the bit that is prohibiting the short-term memory from functioning properly is alleviated. Like music therapists tell you, it’s momentary — sometimes it’s minutes; sometimes it’s a half-hour after they hear the music. It depends on the individual.”
Johnson said the resulting communication eases stress for the caregiver.
He cited an example within his own family: his grandmother, who has since died.
“When she was in a state of confusion and agitation, for anyone to say, ‘Hey, we need to get you into the shower and we need to get you undressed and get you ready for bed,’ you’d get, ‘Don’t touch me! Leave me alone! Who are you?’” he said.
But playing music that she loved made her feel at ease and comfortable.
Developed three years ago as an Australian initiative, the initial inspiration for the AI-driven Vera came to Johnson as “a project for me to build something for my parents.”
“I could see them aging very rapidly as soon as they hit 70,” he said. “But they love music and they’re not using the tools out there today because streaming services are too hard for them.
“So I thought, ‘How do I make something simple that is also stimulating the brain in the right way?’”
How does it work?
The patient’s family or caregiver provides the patient’s birthdate, their native language and where they spent their teenage years, as well as their favourite musical artists or a music genre they enjoyed.
“We’re talking about rock, folk, classical: all these genres that have been around for 100 years,” Johnson said.
Then, with machine-learning algorithms, the system finds music for each individual, categorized into three stations: Relax, Reminisce and Energize.
“Within those stations there’s music based on someone’s demographic, their background and the style of music they like, which will automatically change based on feedback,” he added.
“If music causes agitation, it’s removed with one click and never returns to the system. But if a chosen song is relaxing, we can look at the sonic properties of that song and find more like it, within that era, within that style.”
In 2019 — the year Johnson began working on the app — Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia were ranked as the seventh leading cause of death.
With an estimated 55.2 million people currently living with some form of dementia, the initial aim behind Vera was to provide patient relief. But “we actually discovered that, no, it is the carer that we are building this for, because they are the ones responsible for that individual … Obviously, caring for someone who has dementia can sometimes be very challenging, and that challenge usually has to do with mood and behaviour changes.
“In those moments, you get to play music that is personally meaningful for that individual to help them get out of that difficult moment for themselves, which makes the communication easier.”
Vera is the latest offering to use music as a means to improve health, but it isn’t the first.
Montreal nature recording pioneer Dan Gibson and his “Solitudes” albums combined soothing music with nature sounds to help summon relaxation.
In 2007, Toronto’s David Bradstreet — who recorded three Juno-nominated “Solitudes” titles with Gibson — introduced his own “TheraSleep” and “TheraCalm” projects to battle insomnia and anxiety.
But with the proliferation of mobile apps and AI-driven software, the restorative tonic of music is finding new avenues of popularity and exploitation, especially in the health and wellness sector.
It’s all part of the growing field of digital therapeutics, which uses software to treat, manage and in some cases prevent ailments ranging from diabetes and obesity to congestive heart failure.
It seems to be working: CB Insights, a New York business analytics company, predicts the value of the digital therapeutics market will reach $9 billion (U.S.) by 2025.
Bryan Stone, senior vice-president of digital strategy and business development at Universal Music Group, agrees that the market has only been growing, fuelled by what we all experienced during pandemic lockdowns.
“We’re getting approached by more and more companies to get involved. In the fitness and sickness category, we have about a dozen deals done and we’re in a half-dozen active conversations with companies specifically involved in music as medicine.”
For Johnson, Vera might be Music Health’s first mental wellness tool, but it won’t be its last.
“Our vision and mission is really building all of the different tools we can to improve mental health, all areas of mental health,” Johnson said. “A lot of these things happen even in teenage years: anxiety, depression, PTSD — all of these things evolve over time and they can increase the likelihood of you getting dementia.
“So if you’re able to address these things a lot earlier, it’s a lot better. And music is so natural to us that it’s the obvious choice, as people forget how powerful it is. That’s where we come in.”
Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star. Reach him via email: email@example.com