Language, Music and Dementia (2019-2020)


Dementia is a term that describes a group of symptoms associated with memory loss and impairment of cognitive process severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. In the case of most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and no treatment that slows or stops its progression. Given the severity of this condition, there is an urgent need for an innovative solution that can delay the onset of dementia symptoms.

Music and language might become a part of such solution. Modern advances in neuroimaging technologies have produced a greater understanding of how musicianship and multilingualism affect the human brain. Duke researchers have developed a new approach that examines dementia using contemporary cognitive neuroscience and neurolinguistics.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will explore the impact of musicianship and multilingualism on delaying the behavioral symptoms of dementia. It will become the first scientific effort of its kind to address the interrelationship between languages, music and dementia. The project’s experimental design includes data collection from human subjects through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging and behavioral data, such as interviews, recordings and language proficiency testing.

The project’s expected outcomes include a better understanding of the neurological interface and mappings of first and second languages; the interrelationship of music and language mappings in the healthy brain; improvements in patient care and wellness in aging populations by using personalized music; and the creation of a database of narratives by musicians (bilingual and monolingual), both healthy subjects and patients.

Team members will participate in one or more of these research efforts. In the future, the project’s findings may be extended to the educational context. Given a connection between music, language and the delayed symptom progression of dementia, educational programs emphasizing music training and language learning will be of increased interest to the general public. Furthermore, the project leaders are committed to fostering a community of young scholars around the issue by offering a course in the spring semester, Language, Music and Dementia: Neuroscience Approaches (NEURO/LIN/MUSIC 595).

Anticipated Outputs

Publication in a major neuroscience journal; participation in presentations and conferences; grant application drafts; experiment manuscripts

Student Opportunities

Ideally, the team will include a balance of 10 undergraduates and 10 graduate students from the departments of Neuroscience, Linguistics, Music and the Duke Medical School.

The project manager, Dr. Rammell, will coordinate the scheduling for all team-based meetings. Team members will take responsibility for specific aspects of each project and learn important primary research in each of the pathways. Students and leaders will collaborate based on 1) behavioral data collection on language and music and 2) sharing of data from healthy subjects and patients. During these meetings, in addition to discussing the literature, students will discuss project obstacles and successes and seek peer-to-peer feedback.

Team members will participate not only in the collection but also in the analysis of the data, as well as participate in efforts leading to publication and grant applications. In the case of working with subjects or patients who are bilingual or multilingual, students may have the opportunity to use their language skills. Team members will submit their work process and outcomes to conferences with the aim to disseminate what they learn and gain presentation experience.

Each of the research projects is already IRB approved and data collection has begun.


Fall 2019 – Summer 2020

  • Fall 2019: Recruit 75 subjects; collect data in conjunction with Duke University Medical Center
  • Spring 2020: Analyze behavioral data using SPSS; write project manuscript
  • Summer 2020: Analyze imaging data using FSL; submit research results for external grant funding and publication; submit project manuscript for publication in a major neuroscience journal


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Brains, by Thomas Hawk, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Brains, by Thomas Hawk.

/faculty/staff Team Members

  • Edna Andrews, Arts & Sciences-Slavic and Eurasian Studies*
  • Richard Mooney, School of Medicine-Neurobiology
  • Charlotte Rammell, Margolis Center for Health Policy
  • Neema Sharda, School of Medicine-Medicine:Geriatrics*