Music and the brain: Missoula project aims to help people with dementia

for Montana 55

Music can change listeners’ moods. It can make people happy, energetic, relaxed or sad. What if it could do even more?

One Missoula project is looking at just that question, and it’s working to get music to those who might benefit from a “reawakening.”

Many neurological studies have been done on the effect music has on the brain. Beginning in the 1990s, brain scans allowed neurologists to note the responses to music with different songs. They were able to track when dopamine increased, in a similar way that occurs with “runner’s high.”

Dan Cohen, a social worker and technology specialist in New York, wondered what would happen if individuals in nursing homes were given iPods with music from when they were in their youth. Cohen started experimenting with the idea at a nursing home at which he volunteered. The results amazed him — some of the residents who had been mostly nonverbal seemed to “awaken from within.”

Cohen then invited film producer Michael Rossato-Bennett to film him for one afternoon at the nursing home. Bennett was so moved and energized that he followed Cohen over a three-year period, filming in care residences and home settings. The result is “Alive Inside,” a film that won awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.

The Gerontology Society sponsored a screening of “Alive Inside” in April 2015 in Missoula, and a passion project here was born.

“If you believed something could help a million people, wouldn’t you want to do everything possible to share it?” Cohen asked in the film.

He has been on a mission for the past few years to do just that, and founded the nonprofit Music and Memory, which he leads. The organization provides webinar training for professionals who work primarily with individuals with dementia.

In Missoula, one local hospice has taken the Music and Memory webinar training and has been certified to use iPods to awaken memories and for therapeutic uses. Another local memory care residence has started to use repurposed smartphones to play music, which have provided good results for some residents.

Like Cohen, the Missoula Music and Memory Project believes everyone who could benefit from the music experience should have the opportunity to try it. Much research exists about how brains continue to have ability to hear after cognition fades. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks, the author of many books including “Musicophilia,” speaks in the film about how the auditory nerve remains intact and allows connection with emotions, which in turn can trigger embedded memories. Individuals who were slumped over in their chairs all day may talk, sing or even play an instrument. Some individuals with Parkinson’s disease who can no longer walk without assistance have gotten out of their chairs and executed a perfect foxtrot.

The Missoula Music and Memory Project has evolved from a passion to a donation-based volunteer organization. Project volunteers work with family and friends to create a playlist of favorite songs for anyone who might benefit from the music therapy. There is no charge for services, iPods and
other equipment. The only “work” staff or family has is to charge the iPod and turn it on and off.

Jackie Johnson is a retired nurse, and facilitates two Alzheimer’s Association support groups. She also volunteers with activities through Missoula Aging Services, where she worked as a care manager for five years before retiring. She can be reached at 406-549-3433 or by email at

Learn More:
Visit to read blogs and details of the training, watch a trailer from the film, see lists of the 3,000 agencies/care residences around the world that have taken the training and more. The Missoula Aging Services is the umbrella 501(c)3 organization that the Missoula Music and Memory Project runs through. All cash and equipment donations go through MAS. The project is looking for someone who would like to lead the work.

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