The Magic of Music to Enhance Language Production

Jamie Mayer, associate professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders.

Jamie Mayer makes magical things happen.

No, she is not a magician.

Rather, Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Language and Literacy (ISLL) affiliate Dr. Mayer is a professor in NIU’s Speech-Language Pathology program within the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders.

She studies individuals who suffer from acquired neurogenic cognitive-communicative disorders, including dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term that refers to several types of neurodegenerative conditions that affect memory, language, and learning, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“Around 40 million people around the globe suffer from dementia, and that figure is expected to double in the next 20 years,” remarked Mayer.

Mayer is one of many speech-language pathologists who are trying to identify and test nonpharmacological treatments for individuals who suffer from neurodegenerative conditions.

She has been exploring how listening to and engaging with music can improve cognitive functioning in this population.

“There are a number of reasons why music can help,” Mayer explained. “Crucially, music engages parts of the brain that tend to be preserved even in the later stages of dementia, including areas involved in emotion and implicit memory. So people with dementia can still sing, even when expressive language is severely impaired. Music also increases psychophysiological activation that increases attention to moment-to-moment processing,” she added.

Mayer, along with Elizabeth Lanza, then a graduate student in the Speech-Language Pathology master’s program, co-founded the Bridges Choir at NIU in 2017 (with a little help from a CISLL Proposal or Pilot (PoP) grant. Rehearsals were held at the at the Oak Crest Living Facility in DeKalb.

At that time, the choir consisted of individuals primarily afflicted with aphasia, a language impairment that can result from a stroke or head injury. Last year, Mayer expanded the choir to include individuals suffering from moderate to severe dementia who live at Pine Acres, another facility in DeKalb.

Depending on the season, the Bridges Choir sings either traditional holiday tunes or songs that were popular when they were younger. “Research shows that musical memories peak between ages 10-30,” Mayer shared. These are songs that they remember.

There are usually two performances per year, one in December (around Christmas time) and one in May.

It is not uncommon for friends and family who attend the concerts to choke up as they see and hear their loved ones sing.

“We have had several individuals who are almost completely nonverbal, but yet they can sing,” expressed Mayer.

Watching a loved one who cannot talk yet sings in a choir is indeed magical.

Of course, Dr. Mayer is a scientist. Conducting rigorous scientific research out in the community is challenging because one cannot easily implement randomized controlled designs. Nevertheless, the seemingly positive effects on language production she has observed in her choir participants persuaded her to develop more rigorous designs.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“Some of these individuals have not been out of their rooms for six months,” laments Mayer, who obviously feels for these folks and their family members.

However, not all hope for the choir to continue is lost in the time of COVID-19.

“We are in the process of trying to create a virtual version of the Bridges choir, using Zoom,” explains Mayer.

Trying to get people with dementia to use Zoom is not easy, as one can imagine.

However, Mayer has a plan.

“If every choir participant had a basic tablet, such as an Amazon Fire, they could get on Zoom (with help from facility staff) and access choir rehearsals while staying safely in their rooms,” Mayer explained. “They could then see and hear the choir director and sing along just as they did during in-person rehearsals.”

Mayer explains that she has tested configurations of the virtual choir to support data collection, as well. “We’re hoping to measure engagement from the Zoom videos during rehearsals, and can place participants in different breakout rooms with student volunteers at the end of rehearsals to collect language samples.”

Let us all hope that the sparkle and love that Dr. Mayer brings to others will magically reappear this fall.

This article was written by Keith Millis, CISLL’s executive board member and professor of psychology at NIU.


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