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Music Can Trigger Dopamine Release

January 10, 2011

A Montreal study reports that dopamine is released in the brain by those who become euphoric over listening to music, along with food, money and psychoactive drugs.

McGill University researchers in Montreal, Canada recruited eight volunteers aged 19-24 who responded to advertisements requesting people who experienced “chills” — a marker of extreme pleasure, when listening to music.

Listening to their favorite piece of spine-tingling music, the eight volunteers showed a rush of physical activity and also unlocked a release of dopamine in the striatum area of the brain. The effect occurred even in anticipation, before the “chill” peak occurred.

The eight volunteers were put into a positron emission tomography (PET) scanner, which is able to spot a tagged chemical, raclopride, that works on dopamine receptors in brain cells.

A part of the striatum known as the caudate was involved during the anticipation phase. During the peak emotional response, a different striatum area known as the nucleus accumbens was involved.

The results shed light on the exclusive regard that humans have for music, say the researchers. This reward sensation may help explain why in every society music is appreciated and also why appreciation of it is a subjective or cultural thing.

No such dopamine surge was witnessed when volunteers listened to neutral music which, previous tests showed, was known to leave subjects emotionally cold. Researchers consider dopamine to be an early brain chemical that is essential for survival.

Seeking to find out more, the scientists then put the volunteers in a frequency magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, which highlights flows of blood in the head, thus showing which part of the brain is being activated.

Dopamine dishes out feel-good jolts in response to life-supporting actions such as eating and for acquiring “secondary” tangibles such as money. The mechanism can also be triggered by drugs.

But music is abstract and is not directly essential for survival and is not one of these “secondary” or conditioned sources of reward, says the study. “(Abstract) stimuli have persisted through cultures and generations, and are pre-eminent in most people’s lives,” it says.

“Notably, the experience of pleasure to these abstract stimuli is highly specific to cultural and personal preferences, which can vary tremendously across individuals. One possible explanation for this is because of the emotions invoked by music — “expectations, delay, tension, resolution, prediction, surprise and anticipation,” among others.

The paper, headed by Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre, is published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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