Music lighting up the pleasure zone

New research published in Science reveals brain scans can predict if somebody is likely to buy a new piece of music
20 April 2013


A pair of headphones


Hannah -   Well, I'm going to move on to my paper now and we're going to stick with the subject of brain connectivity.  But this time, putting a more musical and rewarding twist to it.  So, music (I hope you agree) seems to be an important aspect of human evolution culture and society.  And (Valerie Salimpour) and colleagues at McGill University Montreal published a paper in science this week.  Basically, she wanted to get to the bottom of the scientific drive to music.  So, she took 19 participants, 10 were females and 9 were males.  And she them on a donut-shaped fMRI machine which is basically functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.  

So, she was measuring levels of oxygen going to particular areas of the brain.  And whilst she was measuring these oxygen bursts in the brain, she was playing a 30-second sound bites of different tunes to these volunteers and these were all new tunes that the volunteers haven't heard before.  And then she was watching as different areas of the brain lit up with oxygen.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the participant rated that they liked a particular new tune or sound bites then a bit of their brain called nucleus accumbens which is buried deep in the brain.  It's involved in reward during addiction, eating and sex.  And it's known as the pleasure or reward zone of the brain and perhaps then surprisingly, lit up with oxygen bursts using a money paradigm of buying these tunes over iTunes.  

But the scientists also found that whilst the volunteers were listening to these different sound bites, different areas of the brain were getting recruited.  So, oxygen rush into the auditory cortices so, the bit by your ear, the bit that processes sounds and also, oxygen rushing to the medial prefrontal cortex which is the region that's involved in making decisions.  And then there was also oxygen rushing to the amygdala which is the small almond-shaped structure that's involved in emotions.  And then all of these different areas, these brain areas were connecting with each other and sending information it seems to the nucleus accumbens which was then lighting up, dependent on how these other brain regions were actually talking or communicating to it.

David -   So, the communication of different areas in the brain could tell us how pleasurable the music that we're listening to is?

Hannah -   Well, almost.  It's actually the response of the nucleus accumbens that could predict whether the people were likely to buy that new piece of music that they haven't heard before, but scientists think that the individual's previous exposure to different environments and different musical scenes might affect those connections which then connect with the nucleus accumbens and drive the reward or pleasure response to the music.

David -   So, listening to music that you really enjoy could have the same effect to something like addiction or sex.

Hannah -   I think that's what we're saying here, yeah.


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