Intuitively, you probably already know that music is a powerful memory trigger. Just shuffle through your favorite playlists and you’ll probably land on a few nostalgic tunes that take you back to high school, your first love, or that perfect summer vacation. Now a recent study proves that music, memory, and emotion are linked in the brain, and the research could have implications for the therapy of Alzheimer’s patients.

Researchers at the University of California, Davis, mapped the brain activity of a group of students listening to music, and found that the region of the brain that supports and retrieves memories—the medial pre-frontal cortex (just behind the forehead)—is also a hub linking memories, emotion, and familiar music.

Petr Janata, the author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’s Center for Mind and Brain, had students listen to excerpts of songs that were popular when the students were growing up (between the ages of 8 and 18). Janata recorded their brain activity using a functional MRI (which is used to measure blood flow in the brain), and then compared the fMRI with a survey the students took after listening to the music. He found that the songs linked with the most powerful memories corresponded with more activity in the upper (dorsal) part of the medial pre-frontal cortex.

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head,” Janata said. “It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye. Now we can see the association between those two things—music and memory.”

The medial pre-frontal cortex also happens to be the area of the brain last to atrophy in Alzheimer’s patients. And memories of autobiographically important music seem to be spared in people with the disease. Janata hopes to use his research to develop music-based therapy for patients.
“Providing patients with MP3 players and customized playlists could prove to be a quality-of-life improvement strategy that would be both effective and economical,” he said. So be kind: load up a soundtrack for granny and let her mental movie roll.