WASHINGTON -- In a study that may explain why some people have a powerful emotional response to music, researchers have found that melodies can stimulate the same parts of the brain as food and sex.
"People now are using music to help them deal with sadness and fear," said Dr. Anne Blood, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Charles-town, Mass. "We are showing in our study that music is triggering systems in the brain that makes them feel happy."
Blood and her co-author, Robert Zatorre of McGill University in Montreal, used positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to find areas of the brain that are stimulated by music found so moving by the test subjects that it "sent shivers down the spine."
The researchers found that many of the brain structures activated by the euphoria of food or sex also are turned on by music.
"In the reward and emotion systems of the brain, there are certain structures that are active," Blood said. This activity clearly shows up when patients are given PET scans at the same time they are experiencing the stimuli that produce euphoria.
Previous studies have linked the midbrain, the ventral striatum and parts of the cortex to sex and food. The new study, Blood said, clearly shows a similar response in these areas to musical sounds that the test subjects had preselected as beautiful enough to give them "chills." There was no such response, however, to other types of sound.
Way to cope with stress
Dr. Ira Glick, professor of psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine, said music "is one way to cope" in periods of stress, and it is known that "behind every emotion and every piece of behavior there is a change in a molecule.
"With this new technology, the PET, for the first time we can see it," he said. "It is exciting to see the biology unfold before our eyes as we explore the human mind."
Blood said the reaction to music is highly individualized and culturally based. She said this suggests that some people may react to rock 'n' roll in the same way that others are affected by Beethoven.