Older adults’ brains ‘rewarded’ by music they don’t even like, B.C. researcher finds

A researcher at Simon Fraser University says the brains of older adults feel a sense of reward when listening to music, even if it’s a song they don’t particularly like.

Sarah Faber says her work on how healthy brains respond to music as they age creates a baseline for future research on people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia to better understand those diseases.

The research published in the journal Network Neuroscience featured 80 participants, including university students in their 20s as well as people as old as 90, who took functional MRI scans while listening to music they chose as well as some picked by the researchers.

Faber says they found reward sections of the brain were activated in younger adults while they listened to music they liked or were familiar with, but older adults showed the same area being stimulated even when the music was new to them, or they didn’t like it.

She says having a baseline for how a healthy brain responds to music will allow researchers to spot changes in those with Alzheimer’s and potentially improve therapies.

Faber, who was a music therapist before working as a neuroscientist, says research into people with Alzheimer’s can be challenging if someone is unable to speak, or explain what they are thinking or feeling in a moment.

“There’s a lot of interest in how to predict who might be going to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and then once people do develop Alzheimer’s and dementia, who is going to respond to treatment and what kind of treatment,” she said.

“The brain is fascinating, but it doesn’t exist in a jar. It’s attached to a body, that’s attached to an environment, and community, and a social structure.”