Researchers find location of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in the brain

Neuroscientists have pinpointed the area of our brain where we store memories of well-known tunes such as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’.

The findings are part of a study, published in the journal Brain, on memory loss in dementia, in particular looking at the ability to remember and recognise sounds.

“This research helps us to identify which areas of our brain are critical for storing knowledge and memories,” says Dr Olivier Piguet,MRI showing the location of music memories in the brain
Figure A shows areas of brain shrinkage in dementia patients
compared to healthy people of the same age. Figure B shows
brain areas that are important for the recognition of famous
tunes [red], famous faces [blue], everyday sounds [yellow] and naming objects [green].
senior researcher at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).

“Importantly, it allows us to understand what happens when these storage systems break down in degenerative diseases such as dementia, and how we may be able to remediate that damage,” he says.

In the study, lead by Prof John Hodges and PhD student Sharpley Hsieh, participants with dementia, as well as healthy controls, were asked to distinguish between well-known tunes and made-up tunes that had the same key and tempo but a different combination of notes.

The 27 participants with dementia had a diagnosis of either Alzheimer’s disease or a type of dementia called semantic dementia, where patients lose their understanding of words, objects and concepts.

The researchers found that participants with semantic dementia were unable to recognise the famous melodies.

MRI scans of these participants showed shrinkage in an area of the brain called the right anterior temporal lobe. Located behind the right ear, this area is already known to be important for recognising famous faces.

Participants with Alzheimer’s did not show significant damage in this area of the brain.

“Although people with Alzheimer’s disease have certain difficulties with memory, their ability to remember and recognise music is preserved,” says Dr Piguet. “This is important for families and carers, who can use music as a means of communication and enjoyment.”

Dr Piguet says these types of studies provide a unique opportunity to study the structure of memory in the brain.

“Every day, we are building a more detailed ‘map’ of the human brain,” he says. “As our ‘map’ improves, we will be better able to understand how we can repair the damage that occurs in dementia.”

NeuRA’s Dr Michael Hornberger also contributed to this research.

Reference: Hsieh S, Hornberger M, Piguet O, Hodges JR. Neural basis of music knowledge: evidence from the dementias. Brain. 2011 Sep;134(Pt 9):2523-34.