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Muscle memory?

Many advances have been made recently in the use of music to help people with Alzheimer’s disease. There are reports of people with Alzheimer’s who have been unable to speak for many years, who, when music is brought in to their lives — often with the help of a music therapist — are suddenly able to speak again. Some Alzheimer’s patients can’t speak at all, but can sing, play piano and dance. Music can help Alzheimer’s patients participate in tasks and renew relationships with family and friends. Yet, despite advances in research and treatment, explanations for these observed effects remain elusive.

Many doctors dismiss the notion there’s anything mysterious or magical about the residual musical affinities and capacities that defy erasure by Alzheimer’s. They write it off to mere “muscle memory” — automatic physical memory of a repeated task.

“We have heard of preserved skills at domino and bridge,” says Dr. Lola Cuddy, professor emeritus in psychology and director of the Music Cognition Laboratory at Queen’s University in Ontario. “If so, that would mean music does not have special status, but rather that it shares preservation with some overlearned ‘meaningful’ skills.”

However, Ms. Cuddy goes on to say that “it may be that there are specially preserved networks in the brain for music.”

It’s true that, toward the end of my father’s life, if you gave him a golf club or a tennis racquet, he held both perfectly and could hit a ball with the same expertise he had in his 20s. The same is true of many other Alzheimer’s patients.

But music? I have to believe it’s different than remembering how to play a sport. In “Musicophilia,” Australian music therapist Gretta Sculthorp calls music a “can opener for people’s memories.”

Call me a romantic — but, uh, have you ever heard anyone say that sticking a cross-court forehand volley takes them back to their first kiss?

When I interviewed Dr. Sacks for my book, “Measure of the Heart,” he located music within a “protected place” in the brain. “People with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can respond to music when nothing else reaches them,” he wrote in a 2008 article. “Alzheimer’s can totally destroy the ability to remember family members or events from one’s own life — but musical memory somehow survives the ravages of disease, and even in people with advanced dementia, music can often reawaken personal memories and associations that are otherwise lost.”

Some people think it’s because music has a direct connection to the heart. Others say it’s because music has a spiritual quality that even Alzheimer’s can’t take away.

“Music allows connections to remain,” says Dr. Connie Tomaino, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for music therapy services at Beth Abraham Family Health Services in the Bronx, N.Y. “It allows people to be with each other in a way they couldn’t be if music weren’t present.”

For whatever ultimate reason — whether spiritual transcendance or brain circuitry — music brought Glen Campbell back to life during his Grammy appearance, and music keeps him in this world on a daily basis, just as my father was revived and engaged when he sang with his beloved a capella group or just listened and sang along with his favorite songs. Most likely, music is keeping Mr. Campbell engaged and able to survive with Alzheimer’s much longer than if music had never been a part of his life, the same way music helped my father.

Music might provide an “alternative entry point” to unlock doors in an injured or diseased brain, Harvard University neurologist Gottfried Schlaug told the Los Angeles Times in 2010. Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion engage different regions of the brain, he explained, and might even coax out certain functions of the brain through other than the normal routes.

Several doctors who treated my father felt that music was more helpful for my father’s memory, physical abilities, mood and longevity than any drug they could have prescribed.

Mr. Campbell’s wife, Kim Wollen, said in an interview last year that she recognizes the healing role of music. Noting the whole family’s participation in Mr. Campbell’s farewell tour, she said, “It’s healthy for all of us. Music is good medicine.”

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