Inside the New Music App That Helps Dementia Sufferers by Stirring Memories With Personalized Playlists

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The final public concert appearances of Tony Bennett and Glen Campbell helped tell the world what many families of those suffering with Alzheimer’s disease already know: that music memories can be some of the last to go.

A new app, Vera, is dedicated to helping dementia patients by creating personalized playlists that stir different parts of the brain and can at least temporarily assist with overall lucidity as well as mood. Universal Music Group announced this week that it is licensing its entire catalog for the app, which is the creation of Music Health, a Sydney-based company. The program, which Music Health COO Stephen Hunt says has “algorithms turning out the recommended songs for the people who can’t remember what they used to love,” is currently available to download from the Apple app store and will roll out for Android in the coming days.

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Hunt points to Bennett’s recent appearance on “60 Minutes” with Lady Gaga as a strong example of how music stimulates even the diminished brain.

“You watch that and you see he’s virtually inanimate when he’s not listening to music,” says Hunt. “As soon as it starts playing, he gets right up. He can move better, he can talk better, he remembers the words perfectly well, and he’s almost back to being himself. And then after half an hour or so after the music dies, he kind of goes back to being someone with late-stage Alzheimers. So that’s a really great example of what we’re talking about — and to have that impact on anybody, we just need to find the songs from their past that are in their memory.”

Although Music Health designed the app to be accessible for anyone who assists those afflicted with dementia, including certainly family members, Hunt says that the way the program uses A.I. to take information about the person and select relevant songs may be most useful in situations where caregivers are dealing with a lot of patients and don’t have much information about their backgrounds or likes.

“When someone comes onto the platform,” he says, “we ask them where they were born and when, and then where they grew up when they were 15 to 35. If that was  Beijing, it’s going to be very different music they were surrounded by compared to someone who was here in the States. So it’s really important to have a diverse global catalog that can find hits from all around the world. Because if we just think about Australia, where I’m from, almost no one was born there, especially at this age (of most dementia patients), because . people have come from all around the world and migrated. And we have to cater to everybody’s past.”

Hunt says the complete Universal Music Group catalog is so vast that Music Health doesn’t need to license any other companies’ music. “We’ve done an exclusive partnership with (UMG) for now, and they’ve been a great partner,” he says. “For the current product, we don’t need all the world’s music — we just need a lot of it.”

Music in the app is presented in the form of three different playlists that are put together from the personalized data that’s input. “We kept it super simple, recognizing that the people who will operate it probably aren’t all the most tech-savvy people, necessarily. One is to help the person relax; one is to help energize them; and one is to reminisce — and to reminisce is really collect all the songs that are attached to memories that they can sing along or tap their foot to. If that person gets agitated or aggressive or even violent, it can become a really great intervention.

“It’s kind of important to stress that where we’re actually seeing the most impact is in the care home setting. At home, the person is surrounded by their familiar things. And of course, Vera is for people at home as well.” Family members giving care, he notes, may or may not have present at the right time in the lives in their affected relatives to really know what music affected them most during those crucial 15-to-35-year-old times. “But where we’re seeing the greatest opportunity to have a big impact is in a memory care unit or assisted living where the people who are caring for them have no idea about their past, and they don’t have time to go and research it and find it out. And so we can take very simple information from the database of the care facility and enable and empower the carers with personalized music for everybody.”

Hunt explains why music can bring a temporary salve in the stressful lives of patients and caregivers. “The quick science of it is that someone with dementia has a low level of brain activity, and their short-term memory in particular is impacted. Their long-term memory, however, is generally intact – it’s one of the last things to degrade. And if we can stimulate that with music, we’ll create a chain reaction in the brain, because music is a whole brain exercise for us to interpret the sound signal, and then listen for words. There’s all of these different aspects – the timbre, the rhythm, they’re getting processed in different parts.

“And once the brain is stimulated, it lasts for a little while,” he continues. “There was a recent study done demonstrating that music on a regular usage pattern also leads to brain plasticity. So we’re hopeful that with further studies we can demonstrate we can slow down the onset of dementia. I doubt we’ll ever be able to say it’s preventive, but it’s certainly a very helpful daily exercise to keep the brain working and stimulated in a heightened state, and getting it back to somewhat of a normal pattern for periods of time, often. What we really recommend when we roll into a care facility is that they change the way they care completely so that every carer interaction has music alongside it, whether it’s in the background or the foreground where we’re actively listening. We want to surround these people with songs that get them into a more lucid state, and that help them understand where they are in space and time much better. It leads to a lot of benefits — reduced stress, reduced agitation — and we’re hoping to be able to prove in the long term that that’s going to lead to reduced hospitalizations and being able to reduce violent episodes. And that’s far more joyful for everybody involved.”

 

Music Health’s overall goals and future initiatives go beyond the dementia sphere.

“We’re looking at Parkinson’s next,” Hunt says. “And I’d say for some of those problems, we will have to license all music, especially if someone is curating their own selections and things like that. I’ll also say that with some of them, if we go after, say, depression/anxiety, we’d probably be developing our own soundscapes or AI-generated binaural beats and things like that. So there’s a lot of scope of what we can do in the future.

“Most ancient human civilizations always used music in the healing process — the Aztecs, the Incas, Australia’s indigenous populations. But since we discovered drugs, we’ve kind of forgotten about it. And I guess as a company, we see an opportunity to kind of do what Headspace and Calm did for meditation and take something that is scientifically proven and actually practiced professionally, but it’s off to the side — and pull that into the mainstream by making it easy, affordable and really deployable for all.”

UMG is taking pride in being the exclusive partner for this particular app. “At UMG, we are working with a wide range of companies to develop therapeutical applications of music and we ’re proud to partner with Music Health on Vera to help improve the lives of so many around the world,” said Michael Nash, UMG’s EVP of digital strategy.

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