Sarah Faber, a Dartmouth woman working toward her PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in England, is trying to find out why some people living with dementia respond so well to making music.

"I'm trying to quantify musical behavior a little bit, specifically dyadic improvisation — when people get together and spontaneously make music, what happens to the brain?" said Faber, who outlined her research plan Tuesday night to the Zonta Club of Halifax, a women's advocacy group.

Faber worked as a music therapist in Halifax for four years before accepting a $200,000 scholarship to do her doctorate overseas. 

Response to music

"What I really like about this project is that people with Alzheimer's have really emotional and very intense responses to music — the same as anybody does," said Faber.

"But it seems to be so much more profound, perhaps because so much more of their responses have gone."

For some people, Faber said, music is the only thing that will elicit a response and "bring them back to themselves a little bit."

Faber's research will involve pairing people to make music together. This will include healthy adults, healthy adults who are 65 years or above, and adults 65 years and above who are suspected to have Alzheimer's.

Improving care

Data from their brains will be studied and compared to see how the brain changes as it creates spontaneous music over an adult lifespan. 

"To try to explain why this phenomenon happens might mean more access to music for people with Alzheimer's or people in dementia care and even just education for practitioners, for doctors, for front of line staff," said Faber.

Faber's research is happening at the same time the Nova Scotia government is trying to improve dementia care. The province announced a three-year strategy in June 2015 and estimates more than 17,000 Nova Scotians are living with dementia.