Tag Archives: research on dementia

Dementia Detective: Dr. Virginia Lee

When considering the dangers of nuclear war, Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Ending the Alzheimer’s epidemic  also requires thought that is far more advanced than our current understanding of the disease.


Fortunately there are some great minds working to unlock the mysteries of dementia. Last week I interviewed Dr. Virginia M-Y Lee, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Lee is an extraordinary dementia detective who has spent years studying the nature of tau and other proteins that accumulate in brains plagued by Alzheimer’s. Her discoveries have helped identify new paths for research that may guide development of improved treatment.

Although Dr. Lee’s ranks among world experts in her field, I did not meet her to discuss scientific research. I talked with her to learn more about her practice of meditation as a form of self-care. Since studying mindfulness meditation in 2006, Dr. Lee has been using this technique to help reduce stress and its negative impact on her own health. Her preferred form of mindfulness meditation is taught at the University of Pennsylvania as a healing strategy for people struggling with stress and illness — including Alzheimer’s.

Professor Lee’s meditation practice — like other aspects of her life — conflicts with our stereotype of the “typical” scientist. Dr. Lee’s early years, as described in an article by Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay of the AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR BIOCHEMISTRY AND MOLECULAR BIOLOGY, were spent in southwest China. When she reached the age of five, Dr. Lee’s family moved her to Hong Kong where she remained until 1962. She left then to study piano at London’s Royal Academy of Music. When approaching college age, she decided to switch her studies to science, eventually earning an undergraduate degree in chemistry. At the master’s level, her interests shifted again — this time to biochemistry. Pursuit of further education moved her through academic programs in San Francisco, the Netherlands, and Harvard.

This incredible career path pushed Dr. Lee to become fluent in many languages including Chinese, English, music, and the advanced vocabulary of science. While her diverse education helped her become a formidable champion in the effort to end Alzheimer’s, it also fostered her ability to think across traditional boundaries that often separate art and science, East and West.

The breadth of her knowledge has indeed elevated Dr. Lee’s thinking to the level Einstein prescribed for solving global problems.  For those of us who are not world class scientists, Dr. Lee also recognizes our need to manage stress driven by our relationship with dementia. After years of extraordinary accomplishment, she uncovered a deep truth that applies equally to professors and caregivers, “You must come to terms with the level of responsibility you carry in life.” She observes that we often take on more and more tasks without ever noticing that we’re asking ourselves to do too much. We can’t forget, she warns, that we must care for ourselves if we really want to help others. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be talking with others like Dr. Lee who are using new techniques like mindfulness to manage the stress of lives touched by dementia. Stay tuned.

Music Versus Dementia

It’s been over a year since I first watched the video of Henry, an Alzheimer’s patient awakened by music. More than a million others have also seen this YouTube clip. But now I view the dementia-music link in a new light.

Making Music, Making Memories

Making Music and Memories?

For the past few months, my mother’s been losing her ability to speak. Her words have a strange shape and rhythm that resembles language from an undiscovered planet. My knowledge of her needs usually helps me figure out what Mom wants. But the relationship does not work in reverse. I must say things two, three — even five times — before she can interpret “let”s walk” or “do you want more juice?”

I don’t mind experimenting with different words to help her understand better. As a writer, I do a lot of that for other people. But last week I had an experience that changed the way I look at this problem. Mom was involved in a music activity with a group of people who have dementia. A volunteer with no musical training passed around a box of simple percussion instruments like wood blocks and tambourines. She asked each person in the room to sing a one verse solo of This Little Light of Mine. Mom always been shy about singing, but she liked playing the tambourine and that seemed to give her the courage to sing.

Her words came out garbled, but she made it through the verse and kept playing the tambourine while others sang. When it was time for us to go, I said, “Mom, it’s time to get up.” She stood immediately, with no help from me. I told her we needed to walk to the next room, and she did it. No guidance, no need for me to repeat. Something about singing and playing had activated her old ability to take directions and understand what I was saying! Although we’ve used music with her for a long time, she is normally in a more passive role, like listening or dancing. It seemed to me that singing and playing had a far greater impact on her.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, has been studying the relationship between music and brain activity for a long time. Janata has theorized that the region of the brain where memories are stored and retrieved “also serves as a hub that links familiar music, memories and emotion.” This hub is located in a part of the brain that is  “one of the last areas of the brain to atrophy over the course of the disease.”

Janata believes that “a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye….We can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.” He is involved a number of exciting research projects that examine this connection between music and memory. Janata is also looking at the link between spirituality and music.

I never doubted that music helped my mother feel happier and more interested in life. But after last week’s tambourine performance, I’m thinking of new ways we can use music to help her even more. Have you had any experiences that can teach us how to improve our use of music with loved ones?