Music triggers the same reward centre in the brain as alcohol and cocaine, a new study reveals.
Neuroscientists in Canada focused on the effect of pop music in the brain using magnetic imaging and ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation’.
Stimulating nerve cells in the brain’s reward pathway led to enhanced music-induced pleasure and motivation in participants, the experts found.
Communication between the brain’s auditory and reward circuits is the reason why humans find music rewarding, they say.
Neuroimaging studies highlight similarities between how the brain’s reward circuits process music and other rewards like food, money, and alcohol
‘Music’s ability to induce feelings of pleasure has been the subject of intense neuroscientific research lately,’ say the authors, led by experts from McGill University in Montreal.
‘Current findings indicate that the engagement of cortico-striatal pathways is essential for the experience of musical reward.’
Alcohol and cocaine work by stimulating the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine system, its reward pathway.
This pathway is stimulated by all types of reinforcing stimuli, which also include food, sex, other drugs and music.
Cocaine works by stimulating the brain’s mesolimbic dopamine system, its reward pathway
The pathway originates in a region of the midbrain called the ventral tegmental area and extends to the nucleus accumbens, one of the brain’s key reward areas.
Besides reward, this circuit also regulates emotions and motivation, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
Neuroimaging studies have already highlighted similarities between how the brain’s reward circuits process music and other rewards like food, money and alcohol.
But they tend to be correlational by nature – they show a link between such stimulus, but don’t prove that one causes the other.
Researchers recruited 17 volunteers for this new study, which has been published in JNeurosci.
A screening question was asked prior to experiments to ensure that all participants preferred pop music – as that was the music genre selected for the experiment.
Diagram showing some of the key components of the the brain’s ‘reward’ circuit – the prefrontal cortex (PFC); nucleus accumbens (NAc); amygdala (AMY); ventral tegmental area (VTA); Hippocampus (HIPP)
The pop music fans listened the songs while the research team measured their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which emasure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.
Before the scan, the research team indirectly excited or inhibited the brain’s reward circuit with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
TMS is a noninvasive way of delivering stimulation to the brain to stimulate nerve cells (neurons), using an electromagnetic coil placed against the scalp.
Participants pressed one of four different buttons on a response pad to indicate their degree of pleasure as they listened to the pop music.
Exciting the reward circuit prior to hearing music increased the pleasure that participants felt when listening to the songs, while inhibiting it decreased pleasure, the team found.
These induced pleasure changes were linked to changes in activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is a key region of the reward circuit.
A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device, which measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow
Nucleus accumbens is also directly involved in reinforcing and addictive behaviours in response to drug use.
Specifically, changes in activity in the nucleus accumbens predicted variations of responses, according to the team.
These results indicate interactions between auditory and reward regions drive the pleasure we feel when listening to music.
‘Music consists of a series of sounds that when considered alone have no inherent value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward,’ said study author Dr. Robert Zatorre, researcher at Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University.
‘The integrated activity of brain circuits involved in pattern recognition, prediction, and emotion allow us to experience music as an aesthetic or intellectual reward.’
Prior research has also linked the brain’s reward pathway, including the nucleus accumbens, with hearing a song for the first time.
‘When people listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, activity in one brain region can reliably and consistently predict whether they will like or buy it,’ said Dr. Valorie Salimpoor, previously of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, who was not involved with the new study.
‘This is the nucleus accumbens which is involved in forming expectations that may be rewarding.’
Nucleus accumbens doesn’t work alone, but interacts with the auditory cortex, an area of the brain that stores information about the sounds and music we have been exposed to.
CRAZY BEAT: MUSIC CHANGES OUR HEAT RATES
Music can relax the body because brain waves are able to synchronise with the rhythm of a song, research has found in the past.
Because of this, people’s moods can reflect what they listen to – fast or energetic music may make people feel alert and pumped, while slow music calms them down.
Slower tunes have been observed slowing down people’s heart rates, which in turn slows the breathing, lowers blood pressure and relaxes the muscles. A faster heart rate has the opposite effect and can make people feel tense or uncomfortable.
Researchers at Stanford University in the US found music could have the same effect on the brain as meditation and that slow, regular tunes are the most relaxing.
In line with meditative purposes, often the most relaxing music seems to be songs which don’t have any lyrics – possibly because thinking about words requires active effort from the brain.
The Stanford team said Native American, Celtic and Indian strings, drums and flutes were very effective, as well as natural sounds like rain, or light jazz or classical music.