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Piano playing preserved in dementia.

Piano playing preserved in dementia

When Alzheimer-like dementia wastes a mind, can oases of cognitive functions, such as artistic abilities, survive? According to psychologist William W. Beatty and his colleagues at North Dakota State University in Fargo, there have been anecdotal reports suggesting that demented patients can remain proficient at music or painting. But few researchers have probed the cognitive landscape of these individuals in any detail.

Beatty's group recently ran a battery of tests on a demented 81-year-old woman, who once taught music at the college level. Beatty found, for example, that she cannot identify pictures of famous people, say where she lives or perform simple motor skills on command such as waving.

But she can still play the piano, albeit not superbly. Musical judges rank her playing (which is also impaired by trembling of her hands) somewhere between that of a young, rusty amateur and that of an elderly, once accomplished pianist who has arthritis.

According to Beatty, the woman has also been able to transfer her piano skills to an unfamiliar instrument, the xylophone. "We think in some sense she's retained the concept of how to play,' he says. "It's not just an overlearned motor act that she's spitting out.' Only her learned motor responses related to music are preserved. "It's consistent with her inability to do simpler things, like wave goodbye.'

Beatty says he's not sure whether his study will have any implications in treating dementia. But it is possible, he says, that "you might be able to use the patient's preserved skills to get at some other memories that aren't normally accessible.' For example, his patient could play songs, requested by title, that she could not name when they were played for her.
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Title Annotation:some artistic abilities survive in dementia patients
Author:Weisburd, Stefi
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 31, 1987
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