Anatomically Distinct Dopamine Release During Anticipation and Experience of Peak Emotion to Music
Music has long been recognized as both an abstract and rewarding stimulus that produces feelings of euphoria and pleasure in many listeners. Music may also elicit emotional responses from listeners and alter affective states. While music has been present across multiple cultures and societies throughout time, the experience of pleasure while listening to music is highly specific, personal and subjective. In a study featured in Nature Neuroscience last February, Salimpoor and others set out to study what goes on in the brain of individuals while they listened to enjoyable/pleasurable music.
For the study, subjects were asked to bring their own pleasurable music, and the other subjects’ music was used as neutral music for comparison. Dopamine release while listening to music was estimated indirectly by using ligand-based positron emission tomography (PET) scan in which 11C raclopride, a radioactively labeled ligand, competes with endogenous dopamine for D2 receptor binding. The assumption is that if brain areas are experiencing surges of dopamine release, they binding capacity of 11C raclopride will decrease in these areas. The experience of feeling chills, a marker of peak emotional responses to music, was self-reported by the subjects. In addition, psychophysiological measurements (i.e. respiration rate, heart rate, skin conductance, temperature) were also conducted while the subjects listened to music while undergoing PET scanning.
PET scanning revealed changes in 11C raclopride binding in the striatum, specifically in the right caudate and the right nucleus accumbens. There was also a significant positive correlation between reports of chills and feelings of overall pleasure, perhaps indicating that chills may serve as an objective measure of pleasure while listening to music. The experience of overall greater pleasure while music listening was also correlated with greater autonomic nervous system arousal, as indexed by changes in psychophysiological measurements.
To assess the temporal dynamics in dopamine release, the group employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while subjects listened to neutral or pleasurable music. Subjects were asked to press a button whenever they felt chills (typically during pleasurable moments), and the 15s prior to the pressing of the button, which indicated chills + pleasure, were denoted as the anticipation window. Thus, dopamine release was studied in two different time periods: anticipation period (15s before reported pleasure and chills), and peak response (chills/pleasure).
When the fMRI scans were conjoined with the PET masks, the group was able to identify a temporally mediated BOLD response in the right side of dorsal (caudate) and ventral (nucleus accumbens) striatum that corresponded with anticipation epochs and peak experience, respectively. Moreover, as demonstrated above, behavioral measures like the number of reported chills were more correlated with 11C raclopride binding changes in the right caudate while intensity of chills and overall degree of reported pleasure were more significantly correlated with changes in 11C raclopride binding potential in the right nucleus accumbens.
In summary, the experience of pleasure while listening to music acts on the brain similarly to other rewards like food, sex and drugs. Listening to pleasurable music targets striatal areas associated with mesolimbic reward circuitry and dopaminergic neurotransmission.
Salimpoor, et al. 2011. Anatomically Distinct Dopamine Release During Anticipation and Experience of Peak Emotion to Music. Nature Neuroscience. doi:10.1038/nn.2726