Butler University has been awarded a $600,000 Indiana State Department of Health grant for a two-year project to determine whether dementia patients’ lives can be improved through the use of personal musical playlists.

In the project, called Music First, faculty and students from across Butler—in Psychology, Music, Pharmacy, Communication Disorders, and other areas—will team up to study 100 residents in the American Village retirement home throughout the 2016-2017 academic year. Additional locations will be added in the spring for the second phase of the study.

Dementia Patient Listening to MusicButler researchers will create playlists of at least 20 songs that the patients enjoyed when they were in their late teens and early 20s. The songs will be put on an iPod Shuffle, and the patients will listen through headphones so they have an intimate experience with the music.

The hope is that the music will calm the patients, reduce the use of black-warning-label medications, and relieve some of the pressure on caregivers.

“Creating a better understanding of ways that dementia patients can be treated and lives can be enhanced in this situation is in the interest of us all,” said Donald Braid, Director of Butler’s Center for Citizenship and Community, who is directing the project. “With a rapidly aging population, if we don’t do something, things are going to get worse in terms of the number of individuals who need care. If we can find a better way to provide care and demonstrate the significance of our results, we can make enormous progress.”

The idea for the project began about five years ago when Music Professor Tim Brimmer, Psychology Professor Tara Lineweaver, and others began discussing the idea of an interdisciplinary project between music and science. “The Neuromusic Group,” as they called themselves, started working with residents of Rosewalk and Harrison Terrace, an all-dementia nursing home.

While they were completing their second study at Harrison Terrace, the Indiana State Department of Health asked if they could expand their research. While designing this larger, renewable study, the Neuromusic Group began offering a course called The Neuromusic Experience, working with Joy’s House Adult Day Service, where they established and improved the protocols from the first two studies.

“ISDH is intensely interested in our outcomes,” Brimmer said, “because they have described the healthcare industry in nursing homes as a crisis. Staffing turnover with the stress and the working environment is extraordinary. If they can improve patient behavior, it will improve staff retention.”

In the beginning of the study, the music will be used in late afternoon and early evening, when dementia patients exhibit signs of “sundowning”—a tendency to become confused or agitated.

Brimmer said the researchers will be looking for a reaction in the patients’ rate of speech, physical movement, and clarity of responses. They also will be looking to see if the patients sing or dance, and how long the effect of the music lasts.

“With the right playlist, they tend to remember where they were,” he said. “They might not remember what they had for breakfast that morning or who their son or daughter are. But they can tell you about the place they were when they heard these songs.”

Although music therapy has been used with dementia patients, this study is different because it uses music specifically targeted for each patient.

Lineweaver said the early work at Rosewalk, Harrison Terrace, and Joy’s House found that music has some calming influence on the patients. But the studies have only been for three months each, which isn’t long enough to be able to document any improvement in medication regimens.

The nine-month study at American Village should yield broader, more substantial results, she said.

Because the Neuromusic Experience course involves students in the Music First research project, it has been approved as satisfying the Natural World component of Butler’s core curriculum—a component that helps non-science majors deepen their understanding of the scientific method through first-hand experience and discovery-based learning.

The course also satisfies the Indianapolis Community Requirement of Butler’s Core curriculum because it immerses students in a learning environment that helps them better understand themselves and their roles as citizens in a diverse and interdependent world.

“What we’re most excited about with this project is getting students involved in science that has such profound applications,” Lineweaver said. “It not only links them to science—it links them to the community.”


Media contact:
Marc Allan