June 17, 2013

Music, Dopamine and Parkinson's

Yes, I'm on a cruise ship in Alaska, having a ball . . . and some issues with my photos. So, I'll wait to share my travel experiences here until I can get those images to cooperate, which may take a few days -- until I'm back on dry land. In the meantime, I'll dip into the reserve post "queue."

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On June 9, I saw an op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing.”

The article describes the way music we love bathes a deep part of our brain – the striatum – with dopamine, the same neurotransmitter whose gradual unnatural depletion is linked to Parkinson’s disease and depression. It’s that same part of the brain that responds to the natural pleasures of food and sex, and the same part that drugs like cocaine and amphetamines artificially please.

Since dopamine is critical to my well-being, particularly as a person with Parkinson’s, I had to wonder: do I need more pleasurable music in my life?

The Pleasure of Anticipation
Years ago, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University studied the effect of music on the release of dopamine. Researchers discovered that dopamine didn’t just flood the brain during those special, exquisite moments of musical enjoyment, but even BEFORE they arrived, as if anticipating them.

The article mentions that scientists have long known that “reward is partly related to anticipation (or the prediction of a desired outcome).” No surprise there. For example -- like most others, I’ve always felt that planning a travel adventure – anticipating the pleasure-to-come – brings a special delight and enjoyment not unlike the journey itself.

To learn more about the way music stimulates the brain’s reward system, scientists at that Montreal institute designed a special study. They let subjects listen to new music they probably liked, and gave them the opportunity to purchase special favorites. All the while, researchers monitored the neural activity within their subjects’ striata, those ancient pleasure centers of the brain. Again, no surprise: the most neural activity occurred when subjects were listening to music they ultimately bought.

Impulses Between Striaum and Auditory Cortex
As study volunteers heard music they really liked, the observing scientists also found increased activity between the striatum and the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound, and where sensation becomes perception. The auditory cortex is active even when we imagine, or anticipate, music. These deep cortical impulses help us predict what probably comes next in music, or help us know when a mistake happens – something that doesn’t belong. Like the striatum, the auditory cordex is an ancient part of the brain that humans share with all vertebrates.

I’ve known people who’ve had strokes that removed their ability to speak. But – way down deep – their ability to respond to music, even their ability to sing or to speak IF THEY SANG THE WORDS, remained somehow intact. I know, too, that I’m likely to forget details of recent conversations, but can recall the lyrics of songs from 60 years ago – perhaps because those words were linked to music, and lodged in some deeper part of my brain.

So . . . music excites those primordial regions of our brains, and – when we really like it – rinses our neurons with the uplifting and restorative power of dopamine. Maybe the vaunted duo we all know affects our health and well-being – diet and exercise – need to welcome a third partner: music.

What am I waiting for? Nothing to lose. So much to gain.

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