In the battle against Alzheimer’s disease, Joshua Grill invokes a deceased jazz singer, iPods and a 35,000-year-old vulture bone that cavemen fashioned into a flute.

Grill, an associate professor of psychiatry & human behavior at UCI and associate director of the campus’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, says certain songs can temporarily disrupt the grip of dementia. Music is a powerful force, he explains, one that taps into the deepest recesses of the mind.

As evidence, he points to MRI images of the brain reacting to speech versus song. Spoken words activate just one section of the organ, Grill notes, whereas melodies light up multiple regions. In Alzheimer’s patients, music memory is one of the last things affected by the disease, he says.

In one case, a man with advanced dementia continued to play trombone in a Dixieland band and could even learn new tunes, Grill says. In another, an elderly drummer who hadn’t hit the skins in decades was able to jam with his daughter, although he promptly forgot about the session after it ended.

Music’s hold on mankind is longstanding, Grill says, citing the discovery of vulture bone flutes made by ancient humans. It can stir emotions, conjure memories and even reduce pain after surgery, he says.

Against that backdrop, researchers have begun experimenting with music and dementia. Although more studies are needed, Grill says, anecdotal evidence and case reports indicate that favorite or meaningful songs from a person’s past may ease depression, anxiety, apathy, agitation and other conditions associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Some dramatic examples can be found in the documentary “Alive Inside.” In a scene that Grill shows at seminars, a nearly catatonic dementia patient jolts to life when his caregiver hooks up an iPod playing jazz great Cab Calloway, a favorite artist from the man’s youth. After listening to the song, the patient remains alert and talkative.

Grill, who serves as education director for UCI MIND, cautions that music therapy can’t reverse memory loss, but he believes it can soothe other symptoms for which there are no FDA-approved medications.

With that in mind, he launched Music for the MIND, which collects donated MP3 players, iPods and iTunes gift cards for nursing home residents. The program partners with Music & Memory, a nonprofit that distributes the items and trains staffers at facilities for seniors. Says Grill: “We should be bringing music to everyone with Alzheimer’s.”

Interested in compiling a playlist of memory-awakening songs for your own elderly loved one? To get you started, we asked several UCI scientists for the top tunes they’d want on their iPods:

Kerry Burnight
Co-founder and director, Elder Abuse Forensic Center


Maria Corrada
Associate professor of neurology and epidemiology

  • “Musica,” by Haciendo Punto en Otro Son (“This group’s music reminds me of an amazing aunt, Ita, who was full of life, full of music and died way too young,” Corrada says.)
  • “Vamos a Andar,” by Silvio Rodriguez (“This was used in my high school graduation as a sort of anthem, sending us out into the world.”)
  • “Buscando America,” by Ruben Blades
  • “Right by Your Side,” by Eurythmics
  • “Ho Hey,” by The Lumineers (“My husband introduced my kids to this song, and I love listening to them sing it at the top of their lungs.”)


Kim Green
Assistant professor of neurobiology & behavior


Joshua Grill
Associate director, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center


Claudia Kawas
Professor of neurology and neurobiology & behavior


Frank M. LaFerla
Dean, Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences


Andrea Tenner
Director, UCI MIND


Can Super Mario Defeat Dementia?

Music isn’t the only medium that shows promise against Alzheimer’s disease. Video games may help preserve or even improve memory, according to UCI research.

Craig Stark, professor of neurobiology & behavior, recently led a study in which nongamers who played “Super Mario 3D World” for 30 minutes a day over two weeks saw their scores on memory tests rise 12 percent. In contrast, two-dimensional game players’ recall abilities remained static.

VIDEO 3D Video Games and Memory

Although more research is needed, Stark says, the results offer hope for combating age-related cognitive decline. Based on the findings so far, he recommends five categories of games for their memory-enhancing potential:

  • 3-D arcade/platformer games, such as “Super Mario 3D World” and “Rayman Legends”
  • Open-world crafting/exploration games, such as “Minecraft”
  • Open-world shooter/exploration games, such as “Fallout,” “Grand Theft Auto,” “Skyrim” and “The Witcher”
  • First- or third-person shooter games, such as “Halo,” “Call of Duty,” “Destiny” and “Splatoon”
  • Multiplayer strategy and online battle arena games, such as “League of Legends,” “Smite” and “Defense of the Ancients”

Originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of UCI Magazine