Music’s Effect on the Aging Brain

Jennie Dorris, a research associate at CMU, delivers hope for older adults experiencing cognitive decline

Jennie Dorris stood behind her marimba calling out the name of each musical note as she struck its corresponding wooden bar with a rubber mallet, "C! E! F! … Now, roll the G!”

Half a dozen older adults followed her lead, using rubber mallets to strike the notes on their own marimbas. The deep, rich tones resonated around the classroom.

Dorris studies music’s effect on the aging brain. She is a research associate in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Music, and the classroom was her laboratory before the pandemic pushed the pause button on group gatherings. Her students are local residents with mild cognitive impairment who hope learning music will stave off dementia. Dorris hopes it will, too.

In fact, she has bet her career on it.

Her marimba program is the first of its kind in the nation. She created it for doctors and researchers from the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh. They had found that certain interventions could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, and they were looking for someone to design a music component for their BriTE Wellness Program , which promotes mind and body wellness in older adults through movement, creativity and cognitive training exercises.

"What we loved about the marimba is that the lower sound is a really good fit for older adults. We also liked that you have to stand to play the marimba,” she said. "And, using the mallet to strike the instrument doesn’t require fine motor skills. It’s very safe for someone who may be facing some arthritis or some type of tremors in the hands.”

Week after week, Dorris brought her A-game and trademark enthusiasm to BriTE participants in person, and they responded in kind. Now that BriTE has successfully transitioned to Zoom, she has had to figure out creative ways to engage them online - minus the marimbas.

"We don’t know how long this is going to last, and the concern is what can be lost in terms of progression of the disease if people are isolated for any amount of time,” she said.

As much as she would like to send everyone marimbas, she cannot. So, in the interim they are learning things they can all do at home, such as how to read sheet music, how to conduct music, what the different components of music are, and singing those components while others try to guess what they are hearing.

Dorris used the opportunity to create a research project with BriTE’s music instructor, Heather DiCicco, who is offering music classes via Zoom. The two collaborated to develop a digital music program using research principles.

With the protocol of the program now in place, BriTE can grow its classes and train new music instructors in order to reach more older adults who may be isolated. In addition, Dorris is writing a paper about the development of the digital music program to share her experience with other researchers and clinicians.

"It gives me so much joy and purpose."
Jennie Dorris

"It’s been a blessing in disguise to have had the time and the pressure to create an online program,” she said. "BriTE is making a plan to keep its digital offerings in the future, and we are using our time to refine and standardize the best program we can in this new medium!”

The feedback is coming in positive, even in ways they hadn’t predicted.

"What we’re realizing even beyond the pandemic is that meeting on Zoom is social connection for them. Just seeing other people’s faces in that Brady Bunch grid, they have said they feel like they’re in a living room with other people, and that is very meaningful,” she said. "It gives me so much joy and purpose to focus on what I love to do during such hard times for everyone, but particularly older adults who I think feel this the hardest.”

Dorris is a writer, a percussionist and an interdisciplinary artist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music and journalism from Drake University and a master’s degree in music performance from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Performing with orchestras left her wanting to feel more of a personal connection with her audiences. She began developing community music programs and pioneered a Musical Storytelling technique to help people express themselves that is now used in schools, cancer centers and nonprofits.

In 2019, she received a grant from the Academy of Country Music Lifting Lives Program, which is dedicated to improving lives through the power of music, to study if learning to read music notation could help older adults better navigate their world. She will be presenting her research from this grant at the 2020 Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. In May, she completed her first year toward a Ph.D. in rehabilitation science at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, where her focus is creating musical interventions for older adults.

"The work that Jennie is doing could have tremendous ramifications for using music and instrumental practice in slowing cognitive decline in the aging brain,” said Denis Colwell, head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Music.

"Jennie has designed and implemented a very important research study in cooperation with the University of Pittsburgh that could give rise to a whole new research area and new clinical treatment protocols.”

Roll on, Jennie Dorris. Roll on.

Jennie Dorris (left) teaches older adults experiencing changes in cognition how to play the marimba as part of her research into whether learning an instrument can delay cognitive decline in older adults.

Photo credit: BriTE Wellness Program

While they wait for in-person classes to resume, Jennie Dorris and Heather DiCicco (pictured) have been collaborating to develop a digital music program for the University of Pittsburgh’s BriTE Wellness Program for older adults. With the protocol of the program now in place, BriTE can grow its classes and train new music instructors in order to reach more older adults who may be isolated.

Photo credit: Sam Fairchild

With their in-person group gatherings on hold, participants are enjoying BriTE’s digital offerings via Zoom, such as this online music class with music instructor Heather DiCicco.

Photo credit: BriTE Wellness Program

Jennie Dorris is a writer, percussionist and interdisciplinary artist. She has performed with numerous orchestras in Pittsburgh, New England and Colorado. Her writing has been featured in Real Simple, Consumers Digest, Field & Stream Magazine, Better Homes & Gardens and many other publications.

Jennie Dorris is a founding member of the Steeltown Songbirds featuring Ashley Freeburn on violin and Jesi Sharp Crewe on bass. The classical-folk trio are pictured here recording "Blackberry Blossom" at CMU’s Alumni Concert Hall in February of 2019 with recording engineer Michael Bridges.


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