- Oxytocin-stimulated brain pathways overlap with those activated during listening to music.
- Combining oxytocin and music therapies may provide a synergistic means to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Research indicates that hormone oxytocin-activated neural pathways overlap with those stimulated by music
Written by Brett J. Weiss
Music impacts various aspects of human behavior, especially in promoting socialization, trust, and group cooperation. At the individual level, pleasant music impacts neurological reward and motivational pathways, and recent research has shown an overlap in musically-activated brain systems and those stimulated with the hormone oxytocin.
Harvey from the University of Western Australia published a review in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience where he described research pointing to a potential link between oxytocin and human musicality and its application to conditions like anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The review relates evidence that listening to music raises oxytocin levels and how an intranasal oxytocin spray accompanied by listening to music can provide a possible treatment for some psychological ailments.
Oxytocin’s Role in the Brain and Other Tissues
The body synthesizes the hormone oxytocin in the brain in a structure called the hypothalamus. In tissues outside of the brain, the hormone plays essential roles before and after childbirth by promoting uterine contractions during labor and stimulating lactation. Within the brain and spinal column – the central nervous system – it influences a variety of complex social behaviors like pair bonding, social memory, empathy, trust, generosity, and it even suppresses anxiety.
Oxytocin Levels Increase when Listening to Music
One of the ways that studies have found oxytocin levels increase with musical interactions comes from mothers singing lullabies to their infant children. These studies showed that child salivary oxytocin levels increase substantially when their mothers sing to them, promoting mother-child pair bonding.
Compiling evidence also indicates that when people are older, listening to music can increase brain oxytocin system activity. Just as music encourages affiliations between mother and child during infancy, the harmonizing aspects of music promote a sense of trust and reduce the sense of social vulnerability to enhance group cohesiveness between unrelated adults. As listening to music has similar social effects to oxytocin activity, it actually activates brain networks and regions that overlap with those activated by oxytocin.
Applying Music and Oxytocin Brain Pathways to Treat PTSD
To take advantage of the potential overlap in musicality and oxytocin brain networks to enhance treatments, research has been directed toward finding out whether music and oxytocin therapy can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and PTSD. Delivering oxytocin through an intranasal spray to patients with anxiety or PTSD has been shown to induce calming and to facilitate the elimination (extinction) of fearful and distressing memories. Researchers have also suggested music therapy as a possible treatment for PTSD, and its use along with intranasal oxytocin administration could drive a synergistic benefit from their application.
“The use of intranasal oxytocin as a therapeutic tool in conditions such as PTSD shows promise and may be even more effective when used with other treatments including combination with appropriate prosocial music-related activities,” stated Harvey in his publication. Future studies will be necessary to find out whether a nasal oxytocin spray helps patients with PTSD and if music therapy can enhance its effects.
Harvey AR. Links Between the Neurobiology of Oxytocin and Human Musicality. Front Hum Neurosci. 2020 Aug 26;14:350. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2020.00350. PMID: 33005139; PMCID: PMC7479205.