App uses music from the past to connect carers and dementia patients

As researchers learn more and more about the connection between music and memory, innovators are finding ways to ease the suffering of patients with dementia-related illnesses and those who care for them.

Discover the Vera application, a tool that uses music to open a small window of lucidity between the patient and the caregiver.

Vera, which has been in the App Store for just over a month and is also available by subscription on veramusic.comdraws from the millions of songs available in Universal Music Group’s extensive catalog dating back to the early 20th century.

The idea, said Nicc Johnson, the app’s co-inventor, is that an important song from the patient’s past can temporarily transport them to the present, enabling clear communication between caregiver and patient.

“The reason it works with music is that dementia — and I’m oversimplifying — shuts down the short-term memory part of the brain,” said Johnson, CEO of Music Health.

“The area that is usually unaffected by dementia – or if it is, is at a very advanced stage – is our long-term memory.”

Johnson said nostalgia is a key factor in getting positive results.

“When someone is on their dementia journey, they regress more and more to memories: 10, 20, 30 years back,” said the musicologist. “If you find music from these periods, you can release that emotion and memory. It acts as a trigger for other parts of the brain to be stimulated.

“At that point, the bit that prevents short-term memory from working properly is dimmed. As music therapists tell you, it’s momentary—sometimes a few minutes; sometimes it’s half an hour after hearing the music. It depends on the individual.

Johnson said the resulting communication relieved caregiver stress.

He cited an example within his own family: his grandmother, who has since died.

“When she was in a confused and agitated state, if someone said, ‘Hey, we need to put you in the shower and we need to undress you and get you ready for bed,’ you’d get, ‘Don’t do not touch me ! Leave me alone! Who are you ? “, he said.

But playing music she loved made her feel comfortable and at ease.

Developed three years ago as an Australian initiative, the initial inspiration for the AI-driven Vera came to Johnson as “a project for me to build something for my parents”.

“I could see them aging very quickly as soon as they hit 70,” he said. “But they love music and they don’t use the tools available today because streaming services are too difficult for them.

“So I thought, ‘How can I do something simple that also stimulates the brain in the right way? “”

How it works?

The patient’s family or caregiver provides the patient’s date of birth, native language and where they spent their teenage years, as well as their favorite musical artists or a music genre they liked.

“We’re talking about rock, folk, classical: all these genres that have been around for 100 years,” Johnson said.

Then, using machine learning algorithms, the system finds music for each individual, categorized into three stations: Relax, Reminisce and Energize.

“At these stations, there’s music based on someone’s demographics, their background and the style of music they like, which will automatically change based on feedback,” he added.

“If the music causes a commotion, it is deleted with one click and never comes back into the system. But if a chosen song is relaxing, we can look at the sonic properties of that song and find others that sound like it, at that time, in that style.

In 2019 – the year Johnson started working on the app – Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia were ranked the seventh leading cause of death.

With approximately 55.2 million people currently living with some form of dementia, Vera’s original focus was to provide relief to patients. But “we actually found that, no, it’s for the caregiver that we’re building this, because they’re the ones responsible for that person… Obviously caring for someone with dementia can sometimes be very difficult, and that challenge usually has to do with changes in mood and behavior.

“At times like these, you can play music that is personally meaningful to that person to help them out of that difficult time for themselves, which makes communication easier.”

Vera is the latest offering to use music as a way to improve health, but it’s not the first.

Montreal nature recording pioneer Dan Gibson and his “Solitudes” albums combined soothing music with nature sounds to help invoke relaxation.

In 2007, Toronto’s David Bradstreet, who recorded three Juno-nominated ‘Solitudes’ tracks with Gibson, introduced his own ‘TheraSleep’ and ‘TheraCalm’ projects to combat insomnia and anxiety.

But with the proliferation of mobile apps and AI-based software, the music restorative tonic is finding new avenues of popularity and exploitation, especially in the health and wellness industry.

It’s all part of the burgeoning field of digital therapy, which uses software to treat, manage, and in some cases prevent conditions ranging from diabetes and obesity to congestive heart failure.

It seems to be working: CB Insights, a New York-based business analytics firm, predicts that the value of the digital therapeutics market will reach $9 billion (US) by 2025.

Bryan Stone, senior vice president of digital strategy and business development at Universal Music Group, agrees the market has only grown, fueled by what we’ve all been through during pandemic shutdowns.

“We are being asked by more and more companies to get involved. In the fitness and disease category, we have about a dozen closed deals and are in half a dozen active conversations with companies specifically involved in music as medicine.

For Johnson, Vera might be Music Health’s first mental wellness tool, but it won’t be the last.

“Our vision and our mission is really to build all the different tools that we can to improve mental health, all areas of mental health,” Johnson said. “A lot of these things happen even in adolescence: anxiety, depression, PTSD – all of these things change over time and can increase the risk of dementia.

“So if you’re able to approach those things a lot earlier, that’s a lot better. And music comes so naturally to us that it’s the obvious choice because people forget how powerful it is. This is where we come in.

Lance B. Holton