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This Device Triggers Memories In Alzheimer’s Patients By Playing Music They Remember

Playing a song from the past won’t make it easier for patients to remember individuals, but it will cut down on stress.

In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, songs from the past can have an almost magical ability to trigger memories–even when someone previously couldn’t recognize family members or even have a conversation.

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Inspired by research that proves the effects of music therapy on memory, a group of design students created a concept for a new mp3 player that can help patients remember who they are and reconnect with the world.

When someone walks into the room, the player, called Remind, can play what the designers call a “recognition” song. “If someone does not recognize a family member nor remember their relationship to them, the idea is to try using a song or a familiar sound when a face is not enough,” say design students Emily Keller, Miglė Padegimaitė, Lina Trulsson, and Darja Wendel, who worked on the project at Sweden’s Umea Institute of Design.

“The song would be from a memory they shared, for instance a wedding song for spouses, a favorite concert jam between friends, or a loved lullaby for grandchildren,” the designers explain. “They might have trouble recalling details and names but a song has the ability to bring back memories of when it was first heard, as long as it played a significant role in the event.”

The designers were inspired by a documentary called Alive Inside, which tells the story of a social worker who discovered the transformative power of music. In the film, 90-year-old patients with catatonic stares suddenly start dancing and singing when they hear favorite songs. When the headphones come off, they’re suddenly able to talk and remember the past.


“Since music is strongly linked to emotion, our brains connect music with long-term memory, as long as it’s personal, familiar music,” the designers say. “I think there’s a lot of potential to use these melodies and lyrics ingrained deep in the brain to trigger memories.”

While a song isn’t guaranteed to make someone recognize a particular person, it’s likely to make a visit easier. Music is proven to help reduce stress in dementia patients and help make communication easier. To make Remind more social, the device automatically gets quieter as someone talks.

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When a patient is alone, Remind could help provide a little company with a playlist from their youth, shifting based on time of day and predicted mood. Unlike other music players, it’s simple enough to use that someone with memory loss can easily understand how it works.


As the patient listens, loved ones can follow along on an app that shows what song is playing and what they might be remembering. “Caregivers and loved ones have an ability to customize the playlist remotely, analyze the frequency of plays, and ‘prescribe’ certain tunes when needed–for example, calm songs at night,” the team explains.

For now, the playlist would probably be chosen by a patient’s family, but that might eventually change. “In the future, it will be much easier with access to people’s digital music library on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud and others,” say the designers.

The students developed the concept over an intense two-week project, and hope to have the chance to keep developing it. “I would be happy to see it brought to life, and would love to refine the concept further by involving nursing home workers, Alzheimer’s patients and their families,” the team says.

The design is a finalist in the 2015 IxDA Interaction Awards.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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