Same brain chemistry involved in sex, drugs and rock & roll

According to a study by McGill University researchers published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, the same brain-chemical system involved in the feelings of pleasure from sex, recreational drugs, food were also responsible in experiencing musical pleasure. McGill scientists revealed brain’s own opioids are involved in musical pleasure

“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.

Levitin’s lab and others had previously used neuroimaging to map areas of the brain which are active during musical pleasure, however, scientists were only able to guess the involvement of the opioid system.

Daniel levitin’s lab (Photo courtesy of McGill University).

In this new study, Levitin’s team at McGill temporarily and selectively blocked opioids in the brain using naltrexone, a popular drug used in treating addiction disorders.

After this procedure participant’s response to music was measured,  the results showed that even the participant’s favourite songs no longer resulted in 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 favourite song but it doesn’t feel like it usually does.’ Another: ‘It sounds pretty, but it’s not doing anything for me.’”

Many things people enjoy can lead to addictive behaviour that can harm lives and relationships such as  alcohol, sex and a friendly poker game to name a few. As a result, understanding the neurochemical roots of pleasure has been a key factor of neuroscience research for decades. However, scientists have only recently been able 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.” To ensure there are no potential side effects , all 17 participants were required to take a blood test within a year following the experiment, in order to make sure they didn’t have any conditions that would be made worse by the drug.

Music’s ability to deeply effects emotions and its universality suggest an evolutionary origin, and the new findings “add to the growing body of evidence for the evolutionary biological substrates of music,” the researchers wrote.