Music soothes the aging brain in film ‘Alive Inside’

A social worker goes on a quest to bring tunes to nursing homes

OPENING UP  A carefully chosen tune can awaken the minds and hearts of elderly people who have withdrawn into themselves.

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Some of the most potent medicine doesn’t come in a paper cup or a little pill. Instead, it pours from a cheap set of headphones. As chronicled in Alive Inside, music has the power to awaken long-dormant memories and emotions in people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other disorders.

In the documentary, filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett follows the work of social worker Dan Cohen as he attempts to bring music to people in desperate need of soul soothing. Many of the patients depicted in the film live in nursing homes, places that can leave a person adrift, especially if that person suffers from dementia. One elderly man named Henry sits unresponsive until headphones begin playing his old favorites, including jazz singer Cab Calloway.

As soon as Henry hears the music, his eyes pop open. He begins singing and moving around in his wheelchair. His body and mind are transformed. Henry’s awakening went viral online in 2012 when it was released as a short clip. Alive Inside contains many such moments of music triggering long-buried thoughts, memories and emotions. These brief interludes burst with joy but don’t overcome the overwhelming, inevitable sadness the documentary evokes.

Given what scientists know about music’s influence on the brain, these musically inspired awakenings shouldn’t be surprising. As neurologist Oliver Sacks says in the documentary, music is one of the most powerful ways to tap into the brain. Work by neuroscientists suggests that music activates brain areas involved in emotion and memory, such as the hippocampus, amygdala and areas of the cortex. Molecules that carry signals around the brain, including endorphins, dopamine and growth factors, can also change in response to a tune. And music’s effects extend to the body: Songs can change blood pressure, heart rate and breathing.

Red tape, entrenched bureaucracy and cost all threaten to stymie Cohen’s quest to get headphones onto ears. But perhaps Alive Inside will remind people that music contains the power to temporarily transport a person back to happier times, a journey that’s particularly poignant for people who have become lost inside themselves.

Look for Alive Inside at film festivals and in theaters this summer.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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