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Music Soothes As Alzheimer's Cure Sought

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Empath Health
The Florida Channel
Julie Martin, a certified music therapist, works with patients living with Alzheimer's disease.

Julie Martin sits at a table in a nondescript room at Suncoast Hospice in Clearwater. She strums an instrument called a Qchord, a type of electronic autoharp.

"Hello my friends. Hello my friends," she sings in a slow, comforting voice. "Hello my friends, it's nice to see you today."

Martin, a board certified music therapist, sings "The Hello Song" with every Alzheimer's patient, every time she sees them.  She said music can help these patients reconnect to their lost memories.

"Music goes and reactivates some of that function,” she said. ”And then it can help us to communicate better, it can help our patients to become more aware and alert, and give them a sense of their identity back."

Vincent Gianpapa, the son of one of Martin's patients, said he’s seen the benefits of this type of therapy first hand.

"I see it as a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to get into my dad's head and to find where he is and to make him respond," he said.

Dozens of studies have shown that music therapy can be effective in treating some of the effects of Alzheimer's disease. It's a form of therapy offered by many Alzheimer's care centers to the nearly half a million Floridians with the disease.

But it's not a cure.

Even though Gianpapa has been able to reconnect with his father through music, the disease is still progressing.

"I can't really say he has improved, unfortunately,” he said. “It's not that kind of a disease that there's a possibility of improvement. It's only a one-way street."

That's because many of the current treatment options only have a small impact on the illness, said David Morgan, CEO of the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He said drugs prescribed today only affect Alzheimer's symptoms.

"In my opinion they're kind of like treating pneumonia with an aspirin,” he said. “You feel a little bit better but the underlying process is still continuing."

Alzheimer's is caused by proteins that build up in the brain and destroy nerve cells, causing gradual, worsening memory loss. Doctors don't know yet exactly when these proteins start accumulating or why they only target nerve cells connected to memory.

That memory loss caused by Alzheimer's can be particularly hard on families. Caregivers may feel like they're losing touch with their loved one. But music therapist Martin said her services can help.

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit USF Health
The Florida Channel
David Morgan, CEO of the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute

  "Families might feel like they aren't connected to their family member, and it's so beautiful for me to see that reconnection happen,” she said.

Florida has the highest Alzheimer's population per capita, which Morgan said gives the state a unique opportunity to conduct research on the disease.

"I think we're a natural laboratory to try and find solutions to the Alzheimer's problem,” he said. ”That's one of the reasons why you're seeing the cooperation between the University of Florida, University of South Florida, Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, and (the University of) Miami."

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit University of Miami Health System
The Florida Channel
Dr. Clinton Wright

Dr. Clinton Wright works with one such study at the University of Miami. The nationwide NOBLE Study is testing a new drug to treat Alzheimer's in patients with mild to moderate symptoms. He said researchers for the study hope the new medication will actually stop the disease's progression rather than just help with the symptoms.

"What we're really trying to do is figure out if this medication is well tolerated and safe and look for some evidence of efficacy,” he said.

In order to find a cure, the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute's Morgan said it’s important to find more money.

Research is a good investment because the cost of nursing home treatment is very high, and the government's Medicaid program ends up picking up a large chunk of that cost, Morgan said.

This year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott is asking for $5 million for Alzheimer's research. But according to Morgan, more is needed to find a cure.

"If you were to give me $3 million a year to try and find a way to treat Alzheimer's, and I could delay institutionalization of a patient by one day, I would have earned you back your $3 million and saved you an additional $3 million,” he said.

Megan Milanese is a reporting intern with WUSFin Tampa. Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Megan Milanese is an intern with WUSF’s health reporting project Health News Florida.