For cellist, the music lingers after memory has faded
Even when a concert cellist's memory for people, places and events was wiped out, his memory for music played on. (Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times / December 2, 2004)
The findings from this remarkable case study, presented Sunday in Washington at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, suggest that musical memory may be formed, stored and retrieved using an entirely different set of brain structures from those used for verbal or experiential memories.
The case of P.M., a 68-year-old German cellist, may offer insight into and hope for the rehabilitation of people with grievous brain injury or disease affecting memory. Perhaps, said neuroscientist Carsten Finke of the University of Berlin, music may provide a way into the minds of patients cut off from their past by stroke, injury or brain disease - -or a way back for some.
His case study furthers evidence gleaned from studies of others with memory deficits -- including patients with stroke and Alzheimer's Disease -- that musical memories often endure long after other memories have been destroyed or made inaccessible.
In 2005, a case of brain swelling destroyed some of the key nodes of the networks that manage memory for facts (semantic memory) and memory for events (episodic memory) in P.M.'s brain: Parts of the medial temporal lobes on both sides of his brain were irreparably damaged. Afterward, P.M. remembered no composers' names except Ludwig von Beethoven's, no rivers or states in his native Germany, and no one in his family except his brother. He lived, said Finke, "in the moment."
But when Finke and his colleagues played music and asked him to identify the intervals, scales, rhythms and metrics of several pieces he had known well before his illness, he could do so with great accuracy.
Finke said Sunday that evidence that musical memory is stored separate from other memory might be used to help in rehabilitation -- whether in reminding patients to take their medication, providing a rhythm that could help them walk or simply revisiting happier times.