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Moravian College

Breanne Pirino ‘17

Adapting Music and Memory Tasks for Individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease

Major/Minor: Dual Major in Neuroscience and Spanish
Hometown: Eynon, PA
Project Advisers: Dr. Sarah Johnson


Briefly describe your project.

My project took a multidirectional approach to Dr. Johnson’s ongoing research, which seeks to understand the organization of semantic memory for music in aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is a devastating neurodegenerative disease that causes neuronal death, brain tissue atrophy, memory loss, personality changes, and ultimately, death.

It takes a huge toll on the affected individual, as well as their family members, and we still understand relatively little about the disease. Dr. Johnson’s lab is asking a question that is much discussed but that has not been asked in an empirical manner: Why can some individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) still sing along with familiar tunes, when they cannot remember the names of family members? Well, perhaps music is organized differently from other types of information. My project sought to develop a task that we can use relatively easily with individuals with AD in the hopes of answering that question.

Describe the origin of your project.

I approached Dr. Johnson at the end of the fall semester to ask her about her research and to see if she was interested in having a SOAR student for the summer. I was able to collaborate with her to help with her ongoing research interest.

What’s the best part about working with your faculty mentor? What valuable insights have they brought to your project?

Dr. Johnson is a fantastic, personable, and approachable professor who has been a bit of a mentor even before my SOAR project. She always pushes me to think through things on my own, but she also jumps in to point me in the right direction when I need some help. Professors can sometimes be intimidating, with their vast accumulations of very specific knowledge, but the best part about working with Dr. Johnson is that she shares that knowledge in a way that makes it manageable. She is also always excited about memory, so it makes it far more interesting to me.

What has been your biggest obstacle so far?

The largest challenge of the project is also what made it so exciting, no one else has done it! It is common practice to base a new task on what other researchers have done to study the same thing, but we really had a very hard time doing that. Since no one else has researched the semantic organization of music, we needed to always look to research on the semantic organization of other things, and try to find ways that we could adapt it to work with music.

What has been your biggest takeaway from this experience?

I learned much and more about Alzheimer’s disease, as well as semantic memory, but, more importantly, I had the chance to experience the research process and how that intersects with clinical populations. Learning about the process and its applications has been the biggest benefit to my future. I had always intended to work clinically in my future, but now I am beginning to think that I may like to do some type of research, as well.

What was the result of your project? Was it congruent with your hypothesis?

Since my main task was to help plan a future experiment, we did not really gather much in the way of data. We have only just begun to process the data on the healthy control participants, so we do not know whether our hypothesis will be confirmed in the subsequent study with the new task.


Do you think you’ll be able to extend on your research after this summer is over? If so, where would you like to see it go?

I do not plan to turn this project into an honor’s project, but I am very interested to see what Dr. Johnson finds in the future with the task we worked to develop –and whether it works out well with the participants with Alzheimer’s disease! I hope to hear good news from Dr. Johnson in the near future regarding the task and the study for which I helped collect data! I would like to see some significant results somewhere, ideally, but I am really just quite excited to have been a part of such novel research!