The incredible abilities of a 101-year-old pianist with vascular dementia highlight just how much we still have to learn about our own brains. The woman rarely knows where she is and can't recognize anybody she has met in the last 20 years or more, but she can play more than 400 songs by ear and is still learning new ones, Stanford University researcher Eleanor Selfridge-Field told last week's International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition. Selfridge-Field—who identified the woman only as "ME" to preserve her privacy—says she first encountered her at a Christmas party eight years ago, when the entire room was astounded soon after the frail woman sat down at the piano, the New Scientist reports.
Selfridge-Field told the San Francisco conference that ME learned instruments such as the piano and violin as a child and earned two degrees in music education, but she largely gave up music after moving to California with her husband and two children 70 years ago. Today she performs at assisted-living facilities across the state and has even composed a new song. "ME is a wonderful example of an indomitable human spirit, and somebody who was gifted earlier in life and has maintained those gifts," Selfridge-Field says. A University of California-San Francisco neurologist tells the New Scientist that we still don't have a "great sense" of where music exists in the brain, but it seems to be more widely spread than abilities like language, which could explain why ME and people like her retained their musical skills long after other memories faded. (Researchers say this fruit could help people whose memories are beginning to slip.)