Three New Brunswick nursing homes are piloting a painless, drug-free way to reactivate the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other neurological conditions — iPods.

The Atlantic Institute on Aging is looking at how using personalized music can help bring back memories and make emotional connections.

The project, called Well-Tuned, is a collaborative initiative between the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, and Music and Memory.

Researchers have discovered that music has a stimulating effect on the human brain and can be used to improve a wide range of neurological conditions, including dementia, depression, anxiety, strokes and Parkinson's.

'I think the music gets to a core fibre — it’s a part of the brain that we probably don't understand all that well.' —Barbara Burnett, Atlantic Institute on Aging

The institute, a non-profit organization based in Fredericton, heard about the project online, and received a grant to conduct the only Canadian pilots at nursing homes in Fredericton, Sackville and Caraquet.

Diane Nealis says the pilot at the York Care Centre in Fredericton has helped her mother, Ruth Nealis, who had stopped speaking after a series of strokes.

For a year, Diane Nealis had wondered if her mother even understood her.

But after a week participating in the pilot, listening to songs from the 30s and 40s, her mother started to use the occasional word.

"It was so exciting," said Nealis.

Her mother didn’t like all of the songs she was hearing, however, and would sometimes pull off the headset.

Before long, Nealis realized all of the songs her mother didn’t like were love songs.

"I think they made her sad," said Nealis.

 "My dad's been gone for 26 years, and they met during the war, so all those songs would be reminiscent of that time."

Effects vary

Barbara Burnett, executive director of the Atlantic Institute on Aging, said the effects of the project seem to vary.

One patient, who required medication to calm her, no longer needs the medication, said Burnett.

It has also helped another patient, who refused to eat, she said.

"Usually he would get up and leave the table, two or three times from the table. And require assistance to be fed. And staff would need to go back to his room, and gather him up, and bring him back to the table where they would help him eat his lunch.

"With the use of the iPod, for whatever reason, he became much more centred and would sit and eat on his own," said Burnett.

"I think the music gets to a core fibre — it’s a part of the brain that we probably don't understand all that well," she said.

Sherry Holder, a nurse at York Care Centre, said they selected 10 seniors who have a range of problems, from depression to difficulty sleeping.

"We wanted to see if this would kind of help alleviate some of those symptoms," she said.

"One of the moments that surprised me is with one of the residents, is that when I took off the music and said, ‘Did you like that music?’ and she said, ‘It was so fabulous, I felt like I was home,’ and that made me feel really good."

For Ida Wolden, 91, the pilot has meant no more sleepless night.

Her iPod, loaded up with music from her past, has helped soothe her by taking her back in time, she said.

"The Metropolitan Opera used to broadcast every Saturday afternoon, and my dad would take me in, we’d go in the living room and listen to the radio.

"My mother hated it, so she would go out in the kitchen and shut the door and he and I would sit in there and listen to the Metropolitan Opera," Wolden said.

Her iPod has also earned her some "cool" points with her great grandchildren, she said.

"By the way I'm the only one who has Pink."

The New Brunswick projects will  continue to be tracked for the next three to four months.