Study finds brain hub that links music, memory and emotion

Feb 24, 2009
When people are familiar with a tune, their brains show increased activity in the regions shaded in green in this fMRI image. Red areas respond to salient autobiographical memories, and blue areas respond to tunes that a person enjoys. The brain region known as the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex responds both to familiarity and autobiographical associations (yellow). Credit: Petr Janata/UC Davis

(Physorg.com) -- We all know the feeling: a golden oldie comes blaring over the radio and suddenly we're transported back — to a memorable high-school dance, or to that perfect afternoon on the beach with friends. But what is it about music that can evoke such vivid memories?

By mapping the brain activity of a group of subjects while they listened to music, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, now thinks he has the answer: The region of the brain where memories of our past are supported and retrieved also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.

The discovery may help to explain why music can elicit strong responses from people with Alzheimer's disease, said the study's author, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis' Center for Mind and Brain. The hub is located in the medial prefrontal cortex region — right behind the forehead — and one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of the disease.

"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. 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," Janata said. "Now we can see the association between those two things - the music and the memories."

His study, "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories," will be published online on Feb. 24 in the journal Cerebral Cortex and will appear in the journal's print version later this year.

Earlier work of Janata's had documented that music serves as a potent trigger for retrieving memories. In order to learn more about the mechanism behind this phenomenon, he enrolled 13 UC Davis students into a new study.

While his subjects listened to excerpts of 30 different tunes through headphones, Janata recorded their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. To assure the best chance that students would associate at least some of the tunes with memories from their past, he chose songs randomly from "top 100" charts from years when each subject would have been 8 to 18 years old.

After each excerpt, the student responded to questions about the tune, including whether it was familiar or not, how enjoyable it was, and whether it was associated with any particular incident, episode or memory.

Immediately following the MRI session, students completed a survey about the content and vividness of the memories that each familiar tune had elicited.

The surveys revealed that, on average, a student recognized about 17 of the 30 excerpts, and of these, about 13 were moderately or strongly associated with an autobiographical memory. Moreover, tunes that were linked to the strongest, most salient memories were the ones that evoked the most vivid and emotion-laden responses.

When he took a look at his fMRI images and compared them to these self-reported reactions, Janata discovered that the degree of salience of the memory corresponded to the amount of activity in the upper (dorsal) part of the medial pre-frontal cortex.

While this correlation confirmed Janata's hypothesis that this brain region links music and memory, it was another discovery that sealed his conclusion.

A lifelong music buff, Janata had earlier created a model for "mapping" the tones of a piece of music as it moves from chord to chord and into and out of major and minor keys. By making tonal maps of each musical excerpt and comparing them to their corresponding brain scans, he discovered that the brain was tracking these tonal progressions in the same region as it was experiencing the memories: in the dorsal part of the medial pre-frontal cortex, as well as in regions immediately adjacent to it. And in this case, too, the stronger the autobiographical memory, the greater the "tracking" activity.

"What's cool about this is that one of the main parts of the brain that's tracking the music is the same part of the brain that's responding overall to how autobiographically salient the music is," Janata said.

Because memory for autobiographically important music seems to be spared in people with Alzheimer's disease, Janata said, one of his long-term goals is to use this research to help develop music-based therapy for people with the disease.

"Providing patients with MP3 players and customized playlists," he speculated, "could prove to be a quality-of-life improvement strategy that would be both effective and economical."

More information: Janata's paper is freely accessible on the journal's Web site. It can be found under the "Advance Access" link at cercor.oxfordjournals.org/

Source: University of California - Davis

Explore further: Seabed solution for cold sores

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Brain exercises' may delay memory decline in dementia

Aug 03, 2009

People who engage in activities that exercise the brain, such as reading, writing, and playing card games, may delay the rapid memory decline that occurs if they later develop dementia, according to a study published in the ...

Bands urge fans to put the phone down

Jun 26, 2013

There are few experiences which compare to the life-affirming thrill of a live music event, knowing that you are one of a privileged few being treated to a display of raw artistic skill and power.

Apple's victory means soul-searching for Samsung

Aug 28, 2012

A U.S. jury's $1 billion verdict against Samsung for what rival Apple claimed was the illegal copying of its iPhone and iPad designs signals a turning point for the South Korean electronics giant known for ...

Recommended for you

Student seeks to improve pneumonia vaccines

21 hours ago

Almost a million Americans fall ill with pneumonia each year. Nearly half of these cases require hospitalization, and 5-7 percent are fatal. Current vaccines provide protection against some strains of the ...

Seabed solution for cold sores

22 hours ago

The blue blood of abalone, a seabed delicacy could be used to combat common cold sores and related herpes virus following breakthrough research at the University of Sydney.

Better living through mitochondrial derived vesicles

Aug 19, 2014

(Medical Xpress)—As principal transformers of bacteria, organelles, synapses, and cells, vesicles might be said to be the stuff of life. One need look no further than the rapid rise to prominence of The ...

Zebrafish help to unravel Alzheimer's disease

Aug 19, 2014

New fundamental knowledge about the regulation of stem cells in the nerve tissue of zebrafish embryos results in surprising insights into neurodegenerative disease processes in the human brain. A new study by scientists at ...

User comments : 0