Calming dementia behaviours with music

An Australian-devised therapeutic music tool for people living with dementia is to receive $2 million in grant funding from technology giant Google.

An Australian-devised therapeutic music tool for people living with dementia is to receive $2 million in grant funding from technology giant Google.

Developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne, the tool – called MATCH (Music Attuned Technology Care via eHealth) – aims to placate agitation that may occur among people with dementia when emotional or physical needs are unmet.

Professor Felicity Baker

“It’s an app that is designed to support families and to support professional carers to use music in a more informed and intentional way to manage people with dementia, quite specifically the behavioural and psychological symptoms,” Professor Felicity Baker – principal investigator of the MATCH project – told Community Care Review.

The tool is designed for independent use. “So if a person with dementia is sitting in a room on their own and they start to get a bit agitated or distressed, it’s automating a system that says ‘Hey, something is going on here, we need to activate some music to calm them,’” said Professor Baker.

Through the use of wearable sensors and artificial intelligence, a device – similar to a smartwatch – will monitor movement, heartrate and other biomarkers to detect agitation behaviours. Once distress is detected, the app will play a personalised playlist. “It’s an early alert system in a way,” Professor Baker said.

The biomarkers collected through the wearable sensors will inform whether the music is having a positive effect or a negative effect. “If it is having the desired effect, [the track] will keep going, if it’s not, [the app] will fade it out and choose something else,” said Professor Baker. “The idea is that the AI will learn what music works best for which people and at what times.”

As Professor Baker points out, not all music can calm agitated behaviours. “There is an assumption that music is good, but music can also be harmful,” she said. “Some songs can be triggering for returned veterans, for example. When someone is in a very distressed mood, sometimes music can raise their agitation and anxiety – the app will be used to detect that.”

The royal commission recommended that every aged care provider offer access to music and art therapy for people in residential care by July 2024. However – due to a lack of therapists – it’s unlikely the recommendation will be met.

The MATCH app is being developed to plug the gap. “I’m not suggesting it’s designed to replace a therapist,” said Professor Baker – a music therapist herself, “but my attitude is, if there’s not one there, an app is still better than nothing.”

It’s also hoped that the tool will reduce the need to use pharmacological interventions, which have been acknowledged as being over-heavily relied upon to calm an individual’s agitated state.

“This [app] is designed to avoid that, to keep them calmer, because we know that medications can have all sorts of other side effects, like increasing confusion,” said Professor Baker.

The MATCH project is being funded through Google’s $25 million AI for the Global Goals Impact Challenge, which aims to accelerate progress towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

In all, 15 research projects have been chosen. The University of Melbourne is the only Australian organisation to have received a Google grant.

“Each of the 15 selected organisations share our vision for using AI to accelerate progress on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and each organisation brings their own expertise to move the needle,” said Google senior vice-president of research James Manyika.

“We are inspired by the possibilities they see for how AI can be harnessed to help people solve societal problems, and are excited about the collective impact they will have over the next three years.”

Professor Baker and her team are inviting stakeholders – such as aged care providers, and people living with dementia at home, to participate in the MATCH project throughout the various stages of its development, including the algorithm-building phase of the project, which is proceeding now.

“We’re going to need quite a lot of data to teach the algorithms how to reliably detect. And the more data we get, the more sensitive we can make the system so that it will be more and more accurate,” Professor Baker told CCR.

People will be able to participate in the pilot testing of the app mid-next year. To register interest click here.

This week is Dementia Action Week – an annual event that aims to reduce stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with dementia. Learn more here.

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Tags: app, Google, MATCH, Professor Felicity Baker, university of melbourne,

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