Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music


Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system. Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release in the striatum at peak emotional arousal during music listening. To examine the time course of dopamine release, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging with the same stimuli and listeners, and found a functional dissociation: the caudate was more involved during the anticipation and the nucleus accumbens was more involved during the experience of peak emotional responses to music. These results indicate that intense pleasure in response to music can lead to dopamine release in the striatal system. Notably, the anticipation of an abstract reward can result in dopamine release in an anatomical pathway distinct from that associated with the peak pleasure itself. Our results help to explain why music is of such high value across all human societies.

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Figure 1: Positive correlation between emotional arousal and intensity of chills during PET scanning.
Figure 2: Evidence for dopamine release during pleasurable music listening.
Figure 3: Combined fMRI and PET results reveal temporal distinctions in regions showing dopamine release.
Figure 4: Brain and behavior relationships involving temporal components of pleasure during music listening.
Figure 5: Brain and behavior relationships involving parametric increases in pleasure during music listening.


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We thank the staff of the Montreal Neurological Institute PET and MR Units and the staff of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology for help with data acquisition, M. Ferreira and M. Bouffard for their assistance with data analysis, and G. Longo for assistance with stimulus preparation. This research was supported by funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to R.J.Z., a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council stipend to V.N.S., a Jeanne Timmins Costello award to V.N.S. and Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology awards to V.N.S. and M.B.

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V.N.S., R.J.Z. and A.D. designed the study. V.N.S. and M.B. performed all experiments. V.N.S., M.B. and K.L. analyzed the data. V.N.S. and R.J.Z. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Valorie N Salimpoor or Robert J Zatorre.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Salimpoor, V., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. et al. Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat Neurosci 14, 257–262 (2011).

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