Monday, January 24, 2011

The chemistry of enjoying music

Robert Zatorre is an imaginative and productive musician/scientist. His website offers a cornucopia of information on the brain and music. A recent study from his group published in Nature Neuroscience observes how the 'pleasure molecule' dopamine and different brain regions change activity during the anticipation of, and emotional response to, music (many other physiological variables are also measured). His website lets you listen to the musical stimuli used in the studies, some of the most emotional chunks of music ever written. Just listening to a few of them reduced me to a puddle. (Now I know where to go for a quick emotional pleasure boost!). Jonah Lehrer's review of this work is excellent, a much better summary than I would do.  Here is Zatorre's abstract:
Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.

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