10-Feb-2017 - McGill University

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll chemistry in the brain

How brain's own opioids involved in musical pleasure

The same brain-chemical system that mediates feelings of pleasure from sex, recreational drugs, and food is also critical to experiencing musical pleasure, according to a study by McGill University researchers.

"This is the first demonstration that the brain's own opioids are directly involved in musical pleasure," says cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin, senior author of the paper. While previous work by Levitin's lab and others had used neuroimaging to map areas of the brain that are active during moments of musical pleasure, scientists were able only to infer the involvement of the opioid system.

In the new study, Levitin's team at McGill selectively and temporarily blocked opioids in the brain using naltrexone, a widely prescribed drug for treating addiction disorders. The researchers then measured participants' responses to music, and found that even the participants' favorite songs no longer elicited feelings of pleasure.

"The findings, themselves, were what we hypothesized," Levitin says. "But the anecdotes -- the impressions our participants shared with us after the experiment -- were fascinating. One said: 'I know this is my favorite song but it doesn't feel like it usually does.' Another: 'It sounds pretty, but it's not doing anything for me.'"

Things that people enjoy - alcohol, sex, a friendly game of poker, to name a few - can also lead to addictive behaviors that can harm lives and relationships. So understanding the neurochemical roots of pleasure has been an important part of neuroscience research for decades. But scientists only recently developed the tools and methods to do such research in humans.

Still, this study proved to be "the most involved, difficult and Sisyphean task our lab has undertaken in 20 years of research," Levitin says. "Anytime you give prescription drugs to college students who don't need them for health reasons, you have to be very careful to ensure against any possible ill effects." For example, all 17 participants were required to have had a blood test within the year preceding the experiment, to ensure they didn't have any conditions that would be made worse by the drug.

Music's universality and its ability to deeply affect emotions suggest an evolutionary origin, and the new findings "add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music," the researchers write.

Facts, background information, dossiers
More about McGill University
  • News

    Improving research with more effective antibodies

    A new study points to the need for better antibody validation, and outlines a process that other labs can use to make sure the antibodies they work with function properly. Antibodies are used in laboratories and clinics to study proteins, which are the biomolecules that translate informatio ... more

    Detecting bacteria in space

    Scientists at Université de Montréal and McGill University have pioneered and tested a new genomic methodology which reveals a complex bacterial ecosystem at work on the International Space Station. Their study is published today in Environmental Microbiology. Until now, relatively little w ... more

    New 'chemical noses' to rid the environment of industrial pollutants

    Scientists from five European countries have joined forces to develop next-generation 'chemical noses' to remove industrial pollutants from the environment. The European Commission allocated 2.9 million euros to finance the Horizon2020 FET-OPEN project INITIO that will bring together resear ... more