Doc's songs help medical students' recall

Dr. Arie Perry, a neuropathologist at UCSF Medical Center, uses popular
songs as memory aids for hard-to-remember medical information.

Tenor Arie Perry, a neuropathologist at UC San Francisco, sings a stirring rendition of "O Holy Night," the ode to the birth of Jesus.
As everyone knows, the song begins this way: O holy night! / The stars are brightly shining / It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Here's how it sounds when Perry sings it:
The brain is unique / From other organ systems / It has a functional neuroanatomy ...
If you're a medical student who needs to figure out your perivascular lymphocytes from your periventricular plaques, you could do worse than listen to a Dr. Perry tune on your MP3 player or in a lecture hall at UCSF, where the renowned director of neuropathology is known to startle his first-time students by breaking into song at the end of his talk.
"I was just very surprised," said Anna Cogen, recalling the first guest lecture Perry gave in her "Brain, Mind and Behavior" class last spring.

Songs as study aids

In earlier years, Perry, 48, would pull out a guitar after each lecture. Now he just fires up a PowerPoint so students can see the lyrics, then punches in a recording and fills in with live, soaring lyrics, karaoke-style.
"I remember the Alzheimer's disease song," Cogen said almost wistfully as she considered Perry's opera-quality tones, smooth as melted chocolate.
The doctor's libretto may be unfamiliar, but everyone can hum along to "Silent Night":
Alzheimer's disease, a dementing disease, with progressive loss of memories / Cognitive deficits predominate, a several-year course is the typical rate / With increased disease as we age, with increased disease as we age ...
Now, as Cogen prepares for her first medical licensing exam, she's studying not just her texts but also the liner notes on Perry's CD.
His lyrics are meant to help students learn complex material in a way they won't easily forget.
"We have students who carry around songs and listen to them when running or studying as a way to get ready for a test," said Dr. S. Andrew Josephson, UCSF's medical director of inpatient neurology and a former student of Perry's at Washington University in St. Louis. "It works really well."
A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Gerald Reis, a neuropathology fellow, was trying to decide if the cells on his slide revealed a tumor called GBM, for glioblastoma multiforme, or multiple sclerosis, a very different disease.
"The key for me was that I remembered the lyrics in the song," Reis said. He saw cells called macrophages on his slide that appeared foamy, and began to hum a line from an original Perry song in his iPhone: Foamy macrophages provide the clue, to let you know that tumor's probably not true ...
The song is called "Multiple Sclerosis."
The song also offers this useful line: "... don't call it GBM or you might get sued ... "
"He's pretty inspirational," Reis said. "He's a big figure in the field of neuropathology. He's also very pleasant to work with. He's always upbeat and excited about his work here."
Born in Jerusalem, Perry grew up in Houston after moving to the United States at age 5 with his father, a gynecologist, and his mother, a midwife.
He began voice lessons in high school when his rock band appointed him vocalist and has since sung in choral groups and as a soloist while continuing to study voice. But medicine became his career.
One day in 1992, as Perry and fellow residents at the University of Texas presented interesting cases to faculty, Perry overheard a professor mumble something under her breath.
"She said the residents weren't entertaining enough," Perry recalled. "I took it as a challenge."
At the next week's conference with faculty, Perry pulled out his guitar and offered up a jaunty, toe-tapping tune he'd written over the weekend called "Schwannoma," all about the peripheral nerve tumor that plagues people in their 40s and 50s.
By the time he'd finished singing, people from out in the hall and other classrooms had crowded into the room to hear. Best, though, was that the professor liked it.
"She never made that comment again," he laughed.

Popular songs work best

Perry's debut was so successful that he kept on writing. At first, he wrote songs as well as lyrics. "But people weren't familiar with the melodies, and they'd forget," he said.
Then he set the tunes to pop songs from the Beatles, Elvis, the Eagles and Kenny Loggins - but couldn't get copyright permission when he wanted to make a CD.
So he turned to the public domain. Now he's got another tumor song - a student favorite called "Oligodendroglioma," sung to the tune of "Ave Maria" - as well as "Acute Meningitis" to the tune of "Amazing Grace," "Leukodystrophies" to "Greensleeves," and "Toxoplasmosis" to "O Sole Mio," among others.
The doctor learned just how strongly musical lyrics help with memory when his son, Ryan, now 20, was little. Ryan has autism, and understands more than he can speak.
"But he learns lyrics quickly," Perry said, recounting the time Ryan's mother, a music therapist, was about to go on stage to sing but forgot the words. She turned to her son and began to hum. Ryan easily recalled the words she needed.
"Music has an emotional element to it. If you're just trying to memorize facts, it's difficult," Perry said. "But you can be at the last stage of Alzheimer's disease and still remember your ABCs."

- www.sfgate.com


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