The same reward pathways in the brain that are fired up by food, sex, and many illicit drugs — and even the anticipation of such highs — are triggered by pleasurable music as well, according to a study by researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital.

Like those other pleasure cues as well, listening to music is associated with the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the results may offer insight into why music, which has no obvious survival value, is prevalent and significant across human society.

The research team measured dopamine release in response to music that elicited “chills,” changes in skin conductance, heart rate, breathing, and temperature that were correlated with pleasurability ratings of the music. “Chills” or “musical frisson”  is a well established marker of peak emotional responses to music.

Using  novel combination of PET and fMRI brain imaging techniques, researchers found that dopamine release is greater for pleasurable versus neutral music, and that levels of release are correlated with the extent of emotional arousal and pleasurability ratings.

“These findings provide neurochemical evidence that intense emotional responses to music involve ancient reward circuitry in the brain,” said researcher Dr. Robert Zatorre.

“To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration that an abstract reward such as music can lead to dopamine release. Abstract rewards are largely cognitive in nature, and this study paves the way for future work to examine non-tangible rewards that humans consider rewarding for complex reasons.”

According to lead investigator and doctoral candidate Valorie Salimpoor, “Music is unique in the sense that we can measure all reward phases in real-time, as it progresses from baseline neutral to anticipation to peak pleasure all during scanning.”

“It is generally a great challenge to examine dopamine activity during both the anticipation and the consumption phase of a reward. Both phases are captured together online by the PET scanner, which, combined with the temporal specificity of fMRI provides us with a unique assessment of the distinct contributions of each brain region at different time points.”

The study also showed that two different brain circuits are involved in anticipation and experience, respectively: one linking to cognitive and motor systems, and hence prediction, the other to the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain.

Source: McGill University