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Familiar music could give Alzheimer’s patients a cognitive boost, study suggests

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It’s long been known that Alzheimer’s patients often retain musical memories, even when recall of names, faces and places has been lost as the disease relentlessly destroys key areas of the brain.

Now Canadian researchers believe they know why, thanks to the power of MRI brain scanning.

Toronto scientists enrolled 20 people with early-stage Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment in a study to discern what was occurring in their brains while they listened to familiar music and a composition they had never heard before while having MRI scans.

When subjects listened to the previously unknown composition, it lit up a region of the brain known as the temporal lobe, « which is what we would have predicted because that part of the brain gets activated when you listen to anything, » said  Dr. Corinne Fischer, director of the memory disorders clinic at St. Michael’s Hospital and one of the researchers.

But when participants listened to familiar music — from a playlist of songs they had chosen going back at least 20 years — there was a much more extensive pattern of activation of several areas of the brain, including those involved with emotion and the processing of language, movement and memory.

« There’s always been this question of why music and the ability to appreciate music is preserved, even in the latest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, » said Fischer.

« And I think one of the things this tells us is that it may be not so much the music as it is that familiar aspect of the music and the fact that that’s activating parts of the brain that aren’t typically damaged by Alzheimer’s pathology.

« So that’s why even though you might not know your name, you may not know your environment, you may still be able to appreciate a song because it’s activating those areas that are not damaged. »

Michael Thaut, the study’s lead author and a professor of music and neuroscience at the University of Toronto, said it’s common for people in even relatively advanced stages of Alzheimer’s to call to mind the melodies and lyrics of songs from their past, as well as the autobiographical memories attached to the music.

« They remember quite a bit of music, » he said, adding that someone might say « ‘Yes, this is Duke Ellington’ or ‘This was my favourite music when I went out with my wife.’

« But up to this point, we had no idea what the brain mechanisms are that drive these very long-lasting memories. »

Canadian researchers suggest people with Alzheimer’s listen to familiar songs of the past each day and try to recall the life events the music evokes. (LightField Studios/Shutterstock)

That’s why the researchers are excited about their findings, which were to be presented Wednesday as a « hot topic » at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

« This is the first study that we’re aware of that has actually studied these kinds of mechanisms and has come up with some ideas why the Alzheimer brain can retain music much longer than other stuff, » said Thaut, who designed the research and analysed the data.

« So I think this is a breakthrough study. »

‘Engage your brain in music’

For Colleen Newell, taking part in the research confirmed something she had long suspected — that her memory problems and difficulty with organization were signs of cognitive impairment.

« That’s one reason I went into the study, » said the 60-year-old guitarist, pianist and songwriter, one of about five professional musicians included in the research. « Not only did I recognize I was dropping [forgetting] nouns, but that my mother has Alzheimer’s.

« She’s 80, and she was having similar memory issues at my age. So I wanted to have a baseline to see what was going on. »

As part of the research, subjects were asked to listen to their playlist for an hour a day for three weeks, while trying to recollect associated life events and discussing them with family members or caregivers. They were then cognitively tested and also had their brains scanned again.

« What we found was there was improvement in brain functional connectivity, changes in brain activation and also improvements in memory scores, which told us that by exposing the brain repeatedly to this familiar music, people were actually improving cognitively and there was evidence that their brain was also changing, » said Fischer.

Connectivity is a measure of information flow between different brain regions, an important component of neurological function; enhanced connectivity and the other changes suggest that repeatedly listening to familiar music may give the Alzheimer-affected brain a cognitive boost, said Thaut, calling the results « stunning. »

« So I think we’re sitting on something extremely important. »

Fisher said these are preliminary results that need to be replicated in a much larger study, and future research also needs to determine if the beneficial effects of routinely listening to familiar music persist or are transient.

Still, the researchers hope their findings may offer the basis for a targeted form of music therapy, with a goal of potentially slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and possibly other types of dementia — none of which has an effective pharmaceutical treatment or cure.

« Alzheimer’s disease at this point is non-reversible, » said Thaut, who suggests people with the condition could mimic the study protocol on their own, by listening to familiar songs of the past each day and recalling the life events the music evokes.

« We cannot say you will be healthy, » he said. « But we can say if you engage in that kind of exercise with your family, your friends, with the caregiver, your spouse, even to go to concerts, just engage your brain in music, from the data we have there will be some cognitive benefit. »

While the research found that non-musicians seemed to make more cognitive gains than those who routinely play instruments, Newell said she hopes continuing the study protocol on her own « will bump me up to keep me going. »

« And also it encourages me to listen, just to listen to music, » said Newell, a worship leader at a Toronto Anglican church, whose role includes spiritually based music. « I guess just incorporating it more into my daily life. »

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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Anglais

Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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