Old songs often linger in your head. Sometimes it's a pleasure and other times it's an annoyance, but those songs may be hugely significant for people suffering from neurological disorders.

That's because research suggests indelible musical memories may help restore cognition and speech in people suffering from dementia or after a stroke.

For example, the Music and Memory program at the Misericordia Health Centre (MHC) in Winnipeg is trying to help patients with degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's disease and dementia, hold onto memories through music.

Natalie Baird is a recreation facilitator at MHC, who helps patients remember and speak by getting them to sing. 

She brings them iPods filled with their favourite songs on a weekly basis.   

"Often what happens is when I go in and see people, they're very disengaged. After listening to a few songs, they really start to come back to life, I'd say, and come out of their shells," Baird said.

The patients' families appreciate the results, said MHC recreation manager Ellen Locke.

"We have a good, I would say 10 or 15-minute reminiscence session after the music, which is huge. It sort of brings that person back to the family," she said.

Music spurs memories

When Baird and Locke go to visit with an MHC resident, it's obvious 89-year-old patient Elsie will need some prodding to participate.

Ellen Locke and Natalie Baird

Ellen Locke and Natalie Baird work with the Music and Memory program at Misericordia Health Centre. (Dave Kattenburg)

"You feel like listening to some music?" Locke asks.

"Not really," Elsie replies after a short silence.

Elsie is awake, but distant. But a cheap pair of headphones and a few old tunes seem to help her perk up. 

Baird picks a song from her iPod, Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page, which gets Elsie's nod of approval.

As Baird slips the headphones over Elsie's head, the older woman's eyes start to light up. She sings along with Page, and then without her.  

"You were singing the lyrics when the lyrics weren't playing!" Baird says to Elsie. "And you knew all the lyrics. That's pretty amazing."

"I like my music," Elsie replies before asking to hear another song.

Baird plays Apple Blossom Time by the Andrew Sisters and Elsie sings along, monotone and hoarse at first, then louder and more expressive. 

How it is that brains shed memory, while retaining lyrics and music, is one of neuroscience's great mysteries.

Making brains sing south of the border

At another hospital in Minneapolis, Minn., Roger Dumas is investigating the secrets of music circuits in the brain, and how rugged melodic pathways may help restore others that have been lost.

Besides being a music producer — whose office is lined with gold and platinum records he's helped produce for artists like Janet Jackson and Prince — he's also a research associate at Minneapolis' Brain Sciences Center.

Dumas uses Moog synthesizers to play bit of music to volunteers wearing sensor-packed helmets, which detect magnetic waves sailing across the surface of their brains.

In a sense, he's tickling brain circuits to get them to sing back. And the payoffs may be huge for people suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia.

"If we can figure out how to extract a melody from the brain, we could help people who are locked-in to communicate," he said.

His Moog-brain interface is more than just a high-tech parlor trick. It reveals the brain's astonishing ability to process and retain music; to do complex things like predict next notes, or capture melodic contour.

Neural circuits like these may help restore speech and cognition circuits that have been downed by stroke or dementia.

Can hardy music circuits jog cognition and speech? Hopes are high. And it seems clear that singing old songs makes  people like Elsie happy.

And that's good for their health.