Music brings memories back to the injured brain

December 19, 2013

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New hope for severely brain-injured patients: researchers have found that playing popular music can help them recall personal memories.

The study by Amee Baird and Séverine Samson, published in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation (open access), is the first to examine what they call “music-evoked autobiographical memories” (MEAMs) in patients with acquired brain injuries.

The researchers played excerpts from 50 “Number 1 Songs of the Year” (from 1960 to 2010) and found that the frequency of recorded MEAMs was similar for patients and controls.

They found that approximately 30% of the songs elicited autobiographical memories that were typically of a person or people, or a period of life. Analysis of written memory reports found that the most common situations associated with MEAMs was “dancing” or “driving a car,” and the most common social reference was “friends,” followed by “girl/boyfriends.”

The study covered only five patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory (such as Alzheimer’s) and with intact pitch perception.

Abstract of Neuropsychological Rehabilitation paper

Music evoked autobiographical memories (MEAMs) have been characterised in the healthy population, but not, to date, in patients with acquired brain injury (ABI). Our aim was to investigate music compared with verbal evoked autobiographical memories. Five patients with severe ABI and matched controls completed the experimental music (MEAM) task (a written questionnaire) while listening to 50 “Number 1 Songs of the Year” (from 1960 to 2010). Patients also completed the Autobiographical Memory Interview (AMI) and a standard neuropsychological assessment. With the exception of Case 5, who reported no MEAMs and no autobiographical incidents on the AMI and who also had impaired pitch perception, the range of frequency and type of MEAMs in patients was broadly in keeping with their matched controls. The relative preservation of MEAMs in four cases was particularly noteworthy given their impaired verbal and/or visual anterograde memory, and in three cases, autobiographical memory impairment. The majority of MEAMs in both cases and matched controls were of a person/people or a period of life. In three patients music was more efficient at evoking autobiographical memories than the AMI verbal prompts. This is the first study of MEAMs after ABI. The findings suggest that music is an effective stimulus for eliciting autobiographical memories, and may be beneficial in the rehabilitation of autobiographical amnesia, but only in patients without a fundamental deficit in autobiographical recall memory and intact pitch perception.