Five years ago, at the age of 54, Brian Leblanc from Pensacola, Florida, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Before his diagnosis, Brian was the lead singer and guitarist in a band, worked in public relations, advertising and marketing, and drove a car. He cannot do these things today, due to symptoms relating to Alzheimer’s and bouts of confusion.
Describing details of what his life is like dealing with frequent episodes of what he calls “brain fog”, Brian said, “Imagine you’re driving down a road on a beautiful fall day,” he says. “The sun is shining, the trees are orange and purple. You come to a bend in the road and, all of a sudden, you hit a fog bank. Your natural reaction is to slow down, creep along. I can be doing anything, and all of a sudden this fog comes in and takes over my brain. I can still see, but I can’t make sense of it all.”
Brian reports that these episodes often happen without warning, sometimes five to ten times a day, for long or short periods. But, he’s found a powerful antidote: his favorite music. Listening to his personalized playlist, he says, “my fog has diminished by 75 percent. it’s euphoric.”
Since his diagnosis, Brian has relied heavily on three pillars to help him stabilize function across aspects of his daily life.
One, his ex-wife, Shannon, who helps him keep track of appointments and checks up on him daily if he’s not active on social media.
Two, his girl friends, as he calls them, “Alexa and Siri,” digital assistants who pass reminders to brian every few hours. Repeating details of when to eat meals, take medications, and when Brian should listen to his music.
Brian uses these voice-activated assistants with scheduled timers to play a certain song at particular times during the day. He uses these songs to help clear his ‘brain fog’.
This leads to Brian’s third pillar for dealing with his diagnosis, Music.
Brian has had a near lifelong connection with music. He can recall growing up in New Orleans, remembering his mother playing Broadway show tunes every saturday while she cleaned. His father loved to blast Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture. “He knew exactly where to place the needle on the record where the cannons go off, “ Recalls Brian. “Always at 7:30 on Saturday morning, with the volume way up. It would make my older brothers mad, but he thought it was so funny.”
Now, spending time in senior care communities and speaking as an Alzheimer’s advocate, Brian loves to see how familiar songs bring listeners to life: “After about two or three songs, you’ll see a foot start to tap on the floor, then a hand tap on the arm of a chair. Then the head comes up, eyes open, and they start singing. It’s the most beautiful, wonderful thing i’ve ever seen.”
Brian’s eclectic playlist is close to 500 songs deep and includes: Fleetwood Mac, Kenny Rogers, Queen, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and Broadway musicals, as well as Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, the Neville Brothers and other New Orleans jazz greats. and, of course, the 1812 overture. “Listening to my mom’s and dad’s music brings me back to my childhood. such wonderful, wonderful memories. I can sit here for hours and get lost in the music,” he says.
Normally, It’s difficult for Brian to recall lyrics. But, he can sing along easily, as soon as playback begins, “the lyrics appear in my head like a scrolling text. I’ll be singing with songs i haven’t listened to in twenty years, and the words are as clear as day.”
Brian is describing, what he, and many others dealing with neurological and cognitive disabilities are discovering – that music, and memory share a connection. A connection which is helping them get back some sense of their ‘normal’ by awakening something inside their minds.
Music is activating brain activity and improving the quality of life for patients of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and is also helping to offset delirium and reduce anxiety in long-term care patients.
Favorite music or songs associated with important personal events can trigger memory of lyrics, activities, and experiences associated to the specific music. Beloved music often calms chaotic brain activity and enables the listener to focus on the present moment and regain a connection to others.
In addition to patients, experts and caretakers are also seeing and experiencing these results first hand. It seems that study after study is confirming some sort of significant connection between music, memory, and cognitive function.
“When you put headphones on dementia patients and play familiar music, they come alive,” said Jace King, a graduate student in the Brain Network Lab. “Music is like an anchor, grounding the patient back in reality.”
Using a functional MRI, researchers scanned patients to image the regions of the brain that lit up when they listened to music. What researchers found is that music activates the brain, causing whole regions to communicate, resulting in significantly higher functional connectivity.
This increase in brain activity takes place in a part of the brain known as the medial pre-frontal cortex. If you’re especially into a piece of music, your brain does something called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), which has been found to be effective in lifting patients out of Alzheimer’s haze and related confusion.
“This is objective evidence from brain imaging that shows personally meaningful music is an alternative route for communicating with patients who have Alzheimer’s disease,” said Norman Foster, MD, Director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care and Imaging Research at University of Utah Health.
Two researchers who have played pivotal roles in the research and documentation of personalized therapeutic music, include Music & Memory board member Dr. Connie Tomaino and Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, both co-founders of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function.
A peek at the miraculous effects of this research can be seen in the Music & Memory organization’s documentary “Alive Inside’ a film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.
A powerful clip from the documentary can be seen below:
As just one of many who have discovered the real world benefits of personalized music therapy, it seems like Brian couldn’t imagine how he would manage his disease without the help of music. “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music. “It’s always been a favorite, and now it has a special meaning. Now every day i do climb a mountain to follow my dream,” he says. “My advice, not just for people with cognitive disabilities, but for anyone, is to make a playlist. Take the music you grew up with, the music you listen to now that gives you peace and calmness.
“When you’re sad or depressed, if you’ve lost your loved one, put on a song that was your favorite with that person. You’ll cry, but then your tears will turn to the joy you had with them. If you have cognitive issues, even if you listen for five, ten minutes, the music will give you that clarity—where all of a sudden, you’re in another world where there is no Alzheimer’s, no dementia. you’re in this space where all you have are beautiful, wonderful, funny memories.”
To learn more about Brian Leblanc, find him on Twitter @bigbsbrilliance.
To explore more about the music, mind and cognitive connection, learn more about the documentary or the Music & Memory organization itself, please visit https://musicandmemory.org/.