Back to the 1960s, we’ve known that music and other sounds can help alleviate pain in humans, whether it be from childbirth or pulled teeth.
Now, an international team led by Chinese scientists has identified the neural mechanisms that allow sound to blunt pain in mice.
The researchers exposed mice with inflamed paws to three kinds of sound: pleasant classical music, an unpleasant rearrangement of the same piece and white noise. Apparently, mice aren’t that discriminating when it comes to music — as long as investigators played the sounds at low intensity relative to background noise, the critters experienced less pain.
But played at a higher intensity — above the level of a whisper — the sounds had no effect on the rodents’ pain responses.
To understand what was happening in the animals’ brains, the researchers used noninfectious viruses and fluorescent proteins to trace paths between brain regions. They found a route from the auditory cortex, where sound is processed, to the thalamus [tha·luh·muhs], a relay station for sensory signals in the body, including pain.
The team also learned that blocking the route mimicked the pain-blunting effects of low-intensity noise, while reopening it restored a mouse’s pain.
In another music-related study, scientists in the United Kingdom found that people who believed they had control over the music they heard felt more pain relief those who felt they had no control.
Both studies are among many in which scientists are trying to understand how best to harness sound and music to relieve pain, while reducing reliance on opioids.
Try it yourself: Pick a favorite tune, relax and see if you can get that headache to disappear.