Moving Music Spurs Dopamine Spike in Brain


"The music is stimulating an emotional response and this response is both causing the chills and the surge in dopamine," Salimpoor says. (Chills don't stimulate the dopamine, they just happen to be a useful marker of heightened moments of enjoyment.)

Pleasure, Pain, and Punk Rock

Though increases in dopamine have only recently been documented in music listening, the effect has been utilized by music therapists for decades, says Jayne Standley, a music therapist at Florida State University.

"It's wonderful to have the science, but we've always known just by watching the patients," she says. Standley works primarily with premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit. She uses music to help babies calm down and sleep when in pain because the pain response can interrupt their neurological development. The positive results and shorter hospital stays of the premies she treats lend an entirely new appreciation for the tradition of singing a baby to sleep.

Courtesy of Andre Gaumond

Premies are also often born unable to coordinate breathing, sucking, and swallowing in a way that allows them to nurse and must be tube-fed for the first several weeks of life. Using pacifiers that play music when sucked, Standley says, helps the babies learn how to feed for themselves.

Music as a Healer

In children and adults, listening to music has been tied to numerous health benefits, from expanding blood vessels to treating pain to stimulating movement in Parkinson's patients, says Connie Tomaino, co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function and senior vice president for music therapy at Beth Abraham Family of Health Services.

In the treatment of pain, whether neurological or emotional, enjoying music serves to "gate" the pain response, meaning that there aren't as many neurological pathways open to feel the pain because they are used in focusing on the music, she says.

The music we like also serves to put us in a state of calm and relaxation, reducing stress, says Dr. Michael Miller, professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. Blood pressure goes down, blood vessels expand, and heart rate slows when we listen to music.

In the study released Sunday, the type of music chosen ran the gamut of genre, but interestingly, the selections that came up the most were Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and DJ Tiesto's techno version of Adagio for Strings.

"This piece was clearly composed to inspire powerful emotions," says Salimpoor, noting that this classical piece has also been used in many emotionally charged movie scenes.

Now that he's recovered, Gibbons has found his calling making music of his own and doing community outreach to stroke victims to show them the healing power of music.

"I'm living proof of what music can do for the brain," he says. "I would never be here today without it."

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