Head to Spotify or YouTube and pull up one of your favorite songs from when you were in high school—any will do—then hit play. As the song starts, all of the sounds you hear—the notes, vocals, instrumentation—travel through your ears, where it hits your ear drums and gets processed by the brain stem. From there, an entire ensemble of neurons gets projected to your brain where it goes through a part of your temporal lobe. The sound then gets processed in an area of your mind called the auditory cortex.
There, something magical happens: the music immediately taps into your emotions, making you feel happy, sad, calm, angry, or whatever else.
In other words, music lights up your whole brain.
Music can invoke a whole tapestry of feelings, and the effects of a single song can be felt throughout a lifetime, with every repeated listen. That’s the case even when we’re suffering from some of the most debilitating illnesses that lay waste to our very mind.
“With Alzheimer’s disease, the areas in the brain that are involved with music processing are the areas that go last,” Borna Bonakdarpour, associate professor of neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, told The Daily Beast. “People lose verbal memory first, visual memory next, and really near the end is musical memory.”
Along with being a professor, Bonakdarpour is the director of Northwestern’s Music and Medicine Program, which researches the impact of music therapy and intervention as treatment for neurodegenerative disease. Researchers like him have devoted their careers to studying how exactly music can alleviate the problems caused by conditions and illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia.
Over the course of his work, he’s found that patients who underwent music-based treatments have had incredibly promising and powerful results. “If you play music for them, it kind of wakes them up,” he said. “The music taps immediately into their motor systems. Patients want to dance. They’ll play percussion instruments and participate in the music.”
Treatment can come in a variety of ways. There’s music intervention, in which either prerecorded or live music is played for patients in order to alleviate stress and anxiety. There’s also music therapy, which is the clinical practice of using music intervention tactics in order to treat patients. Studies have suggested that music intervention and music therapy can be incredibly beneficial to patients with dementia, with participants reporting better moods, less anxiety, and even better relationships with their caregivers.
While these treatments have been shown to help those with issues like Alzheimer’s, there are logistical barriers that cannot always be overcome.. For one, a music therapist or clinician who can assist with music intervention can be hard to come by—especially if you live in a remote area or can’t afford it. Another issue is the fact that they can’t be on call 24/7. You might simply be out of luck if a problem during a session strikes at an odd hour.
That’s the problem that digital health tech startup LUCID is trying to solve. The Toronto-based company is focused on “turning music into medicine,” Zach McMahon, CEO and co-founder of LUCID, told The Daily Beast. They’ve developed an AI platform that they claim combines machine-learning with neuroscience to help reduce feelings of anxiety in adults.
“Music interventions can ease these psychiatric symptoms and spark joy,” McMahon said. “We’re committed to delivering new care paradigms in an evidence-based way.”
In March, the company released the results of its first controlled clinical trial. The experiment pulled together more than 160 participants with self-reported anxiety, split up by the researchers into four groups. One group listened to a playlist of music and binaural beats—an auditory illusion that occurs when you play different tones in each ear—curated by LUCID’s AI; two groups listened either to just music or just beats; the last group listened to pink noise. By the end, the team discovered that the group that had listened to the AI-powered playlist of music and beats had a significant reduction in their anxiety.
It wasn’t just a bunch of random calming songs from Spotify’s meditation playlist either. The songs and beats compiled by LUCID’s AI are unique to each listener, providing an entirely personalized experience based on their needs and mood at the time of listening. In fact, the music must be personalized to the individual patient in order to get the best results. The songs that someone born in the ’50s enjoys are likely very different from someone born in the ’90s.
LUCID is now working to develop and refine its product for people with dementia, with a planned digital therapeutic dubbed LUC-101 by 2023. That’s a much more ambitious goal than treating otherwise healthy adults suffering from anxiety. Diseases like Alzheimer’s rob a person of what makes them a person: their mind. Those differences are the biggest hurdles for companies like LUCID that want to develop a digital treatment for neurodegenerative issues.
But even so, like with Bonakdarpour’s work, the startup claims that it has the potential to really improve a dementia patient’s quality of life.
“I think the things that cause us to feel anxiety and those with dementia to feel anxiety are not so different,” Frank Russo, chief scientific officer of LUCID and co-author of the paper, told The Daily Beast. “It’s things like uncertainty about the future, or what’s in front of you right now that are the triggers of anxiety. It’s a future-looking stress. If you’re disoriented, or things change in your environment, or you’re not so sure about what you're doing, these are anxiety-provoking events. It’s tapping into the same biological hardware that we’ve all evolved to keep us safe and thriving.”
“So I’ll say that we know that interventions that help people reduce stress and anxiety in healthy people also reduce stress and anxiety in people with dementia,” he added.
Bonakdarpour warns, though, that while he is hopeful that a treatment like this can be beneficial to patients with dementia, it’s not a panacea. It certainly in no way should be a replacement for clinical music therapy. “Would this replace music therapy? No, this isn’t music therapy,” he said. “Music therapy has to involve a trained certified music therapist who plans for sessions and measures things.”
However, Bonakdarpour does see a lot of promise in an AI-driven music streaming platform that can help alleviate anxiety for patients when they’re outside of a clinical setting or away from their music therapist. He’s also encouraged by LUCID’s use of personalized playlists, since the music that provides the most therapeutic benefit for an individual often comes from their own past.
This is consistent with Bonakdarpour’s own research using music therapy for dementia patients as well. He said that the music that his patients respond best to often comes from their childhood through their twenties. The reason for this is heartbreakingly simple: It reminds them of times when they were simply the happiest.
“In patients with dementia, the long-term memory of music is retained,” Bonakdarpour explained. “When they listen to familiar music that they liked when they were younger, it brings back long term memories of a time in their life when they felt safe, because in their current life, they’re lost. They’re anxious. Sometimes, they know they have Alzheimer’s. But then you take them to when they were younger with beautiful music and it brings them memories and back to their past when things were much more calming.”
But Bonakdarpour stressed that ideally, the music would be actually improvised in front of the patient in a method called clinically designed improvisatory music. “Music therapists often compose in the moment,” he said. “It lets them interact with the patient to see what’s working. If it’s not, they immediately adapt. Pre-recorded music has less flexibility.”
Still, there are plenty of benefits to a potential product that you can access virtually anywhere. McMahon thinks that a future form for LUC-101 might come in the form of an app that patients and their caregivers can access. From there, they’ll be able to get AI-personalized treatments from the comfort of their own home. Of course, in a best case scenario, it’d be paired with clinical care along with treatment from a music therapist, but it has the potential to open up music intervention access to millions of people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s today.
And while it might not be the silver bullet that’ll stop dementia—a condition that ruthlessly claws away at a person’s mind and memories—it could help provide patients and their caregivers a bit of ease, joy, and levity in the final days of their lives—and that’s certainly a good enough reason to sing and dance.