A drive to experience Alzheimer's disease from the inside

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(AFP) – The loss of memory, the anguish of losing all your bearings … Can we understand through music what a patient experiences? Alzheimer’s? A British artist, Leyland Kirby, tried the experiment in a series of albums which reproduce the progressive progression of dementia.

“I have read many articles like many books on this disease and it’s amazing how destructive it is “, explained in 2019 Mr. Kirby to the Electronic Beats site.

This British musician has been recording numerous electronic music records for 25 years, under different pseudonyms. Under one of them, The Caretaker – “the Guardian”, a reference to the film Shining – he more particularly explored the theme of memory and, above all, the loss of it.

The culmination of this process is a series of six albums, called “Everywhere at the end of time” – “Everywhere at the end of time” – and completed in 2019 by Mr. Kirby, who did not respond to AFP’s requests.

In more than six hours, he seeks to to bring to life from the inside everything that a patient with dementia of the Alzheimer’s type undergoes, from his first loss of memory to the total dissolution of this one.

To what can sound like such music? Mr. Kirby works from hundreds of hours of recordings dating back years 1930. These are for the most part nostalgic tunes gorged with strings which then resounded in the ballrooms.

In the first three discs of the series, the disease is still little advanced. and the tunes are still recognizable, even though they are already altered to appear distant and filled with echoes.

But in the last three records these melodies are reworked, fractured and distorted to such an extent that they are no longer recognizable and the whole becomes particularly uncomfortable to listen to.

“In the first three stages, there are episodes where the thought is clear while looping, which corresponds to the first symptoms “, explained Mr. Kirby in 2019.

“From step 4, it is no longer possible to think clearly, so we come to a period of total confusion,” he continued. “Maybe we can vaguely recognize a melody from time to time, but for the most part we have lost our minds now.”

– “Interesting approach” –

Beyond its musical value, what is this project worth from a clinical point of view? Can we really find there the reality of a person suffering from dementia?

“The approach is interesting”, judges with AFP the neuropsychologist Hervé Platel, specialist in the effects music on the brain.

Certainly, he emphasizes, such an album can only approach an experience that is essentially inaccessible. But, once this reservation is made, Mr. Platel sees it as a rather faithful translation of what we know about the emotional journey of a patient with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

“From this point of view, it’s rather well done and well rendered”, he explains. “The feeling that we can have at the echo of this music is anxiety and a feeling of depression. “

” This is very real: patients who are notified of a neurodegenative disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, they go through these emotional states which are produced in particular by the destructuring of their memory “, continues Mr. Platel.

However, Mr. Kirby’s approach has its imperfections. It gives, in particular, the impression of a total and unilateral degradation of the memory, whereas the reality is more complex.

“It is a familiar representation where the we imagine that it is a disease that alters all memory mechanisms (but) this is not the case “, underlines M. Platel.

And it is precisely the perception of music and its memory which best escape the loss of cognitive abilities, including in patients at an advanced stage.

Better, patients are also able to remember new melodies, even if they quickly forget the learning process itself.

“Patients retain their musical memories completely despite the evolution of the disease “, explains Mr. Platel. “There is no loss of musical memory in the end.”

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