May 10, 2019, by Dr. Meghan Gray

Brain Imaging on the BBC: Dementia Choir

Members of the Medical Imaging group from the School of Physics and Astronomy recently featured in a BBC documentary entitled “Our Dementia Choir“. In this guest post, Dr. Lauren Gascoyne and Dr. Rebecca Dewey describe the science behind the deep connection between music and our brains.  The two-part show is available on demand from BBC iPlayer until June 8.

Local actor Vicky McClure (famous for Line of Duty) approached the University of Nottingham last year while making a documentary about how music can help sufferers of dementia. She recently lost her Nan to the disease and so it is an issue close to her heart.  During the course of the documentary, Vicky forms a choir for dementia sufferers and we follow their stories to find out more about how dementia impacts people’s lives.  Researchers at the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre were asked to showcase some techniques that can look into how dementia affects the brain.  We scanned the brains of some of the choir members, and Vicky herself, using different techniques to see how the brain responded to music. One technique we used is magnetoencephalography (MEG), a way of measuring the activity of neurons in the brain when they are firing. This can tell us about how well different areas of the brain are connecting together with millisecond resolution, and then we can compare activity of healthy people with people with disorders such as dementia to see where there might be differences in brain activity. The patients sat in the MEG scanner while we played different songs for them to listen to, including Fur Elise by Mozart and Paranoid by Black Sabbath (the patients enjoyed this one!).   

We showed Vicky her MEG results, and we also looked at some of the results of the choir members. We could see that there was an increase in brain activity in the auditory region that processes sounds, and also in the language areas, showing that both Vicky’s and the choir members’ brains were responding to the meaningful lyrics of the songs they heard.  Throughout all the scans we had a neurologist on hand to talk us through the different ways dementia can affect the brain. The results showed that the choir members’ ability to process and enjoy the music was not affected by dementia.

empty chair with large medical scanning instrument above

Another way of measuring brain activity is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Instead of detecting tiny changes in the magnetic field around electrical signals of brain activity (as in MEG), fMRI measures changes in the blood flow in the brain, when active brain regions start demanding more oxygen to help fuel the increased work. We did some brain scans on Vicky while she was listening to boring sounds (broadband noise) and also while she was listening to a favourite, meaningful song (In My Life, by the Beatles). We showed very quickly on her MRI scan that listening to both sounds activates areas of the temporal lobe involved in auditory processing – called the auditory cortex, but listening to the music also used loads of other areas in the brain that aren’t typically used in sound processing. Vicky will have been thinking about the words, imagery, memories and emotions associated with the song.

Posted in NewsPublic EngagementResearch