The oldest known method for relieving pain is music, and yet, to date, the underlying neural mechanisms have not been studied. Here, we investigate these neural mechanisms by applying a well-defined painful stimulus while participants listened to their favorite music or to no music. Neural responses in the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord were mapped with functional magnetic resonance imaging spanning the cortex, brain stem, and spinal cord. Subjective pain ratings were observed to be significantly lower when pain was administered with music than without music. The pain stimulus without music elicited neural activity in brain regions that are consistent with previous studies. Brain regions associated with pleasurable music listening included limbic, frontal, and auditory regions, when comparing music to non-music pain conditions. In addition, regions demonstrated activity indicative of descending pain modulation when contrasting the 2 conditions. These regions include the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, periaqueductal gray matter, rostral ventromedial medulla, and dorsal gray matter of the spinal cord. This is the first imaging study to characterize the neural response of pain and how pain is mitigated by music, and it provides new insights into the neural mechanism of music-induced analgesia within the central nervous system.
Perspective: This article presents the first investigation of neural processes underlying music analgesia in human participants. Music modulates pain responses in the brain, brain stem, and spinal cord, and neural activity changes are consistent with engagement of the descending analgesia system.
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