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This article appears on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire website 

& was written by Lee Anna Rasar Music Therapy Program Director


Neurochemical Rationale for using Music for Addictions

Addiction and the Brain and Music


How addiction works:


Dopamine (neurotransmitter affecting appetitive stimuli) is released into the nucleus accumbens and other brain areas by neurons in the reward pathway. Dopamine causes us to feel good. Drugs cause dopamine to be stored in the synapses between neurons in excess amounts because drugs inhibit the re-uptake of dopamine. The neurons are then prevented from effectively communicating information for functioning via electrical signals which travel down axon pathways.  The signals are disrupted from being passed form the sending neuron to a receiving neuron while other nerve cells are blocked from releasing Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that works to prevent the receptor nerve from being overstimulated. 



Effects of drugs on the brain:

Drugs damage the brain by decreasing brain activity and glucose metabolism. 

Drugs result in a pooling of dopamine in the synapses because they restrict GABA from inhibiting the dopamine which then creates excesses and results in a high due to the pleasure response. 


The heightened pleasure creates dependency due to repeated drug use disrupting the normal balance of the brain circuits that control rewards, memory, and cognition.


Cocaine: prevents GABA inhibitors from balancing dopamine in the synapses of the brain, blocking the re-uptake of dopamine and resulting in neurons not communicating information effectively.


Cocaine use causes a decrease in glucose metabolism in the brain primarily in the frontal lobes, where planning, abstract thinking, and impulse behavior are governed. Glucose metabolism is still significantly decreased 100 days after abuse stops. 


Heroine/morphine: blocks the release of GABA , preventing the release of dopamine from being inhibited. 



Why is music effective for people with addiction?


Music stimulates and helps produce GABA inhibitors, allowing a natural inhibition of dopamine and also allowing dopamine to be taken back up by the sending nerve cell, creating a chemical balance. 

Music stimulates the release of hormones and neurotransmitters via the hypothalamus (ex.: dopamine and norepinephrine) associated with appetitive stimuli and feelings of reward, which then create natural feelings of reinforcement compensating for the unnatural reinforcement produced by drug abuse. 


Music stimuli affect the nucleus accumbens, a region in the basal forebrain whose nerve cells act as dopamine receptors. Stimulation of this region is reinforcing and is responsible for reinforcing effects of appetitive stimuli. Music stimulates dopamine and dopaminergic producing neurons and receptor areas with impulses that are reinforcing enough to cause music to have reinforcing value.


In cerebral processing of auditory stimuli, the orbitofrontal cortex (translates judgments/social situations into actions and emotional responses) exchanges information from frontal lobe structures with the limbic system (emotional function center), the cingulated gyrus (emotions, motivated behavior), and the amygdala (responds to aversive stimuli, deals with anger and fear associated with defensive, offensive, and escape behaviors). All of these structures respond to music stimuli which can affect emotional triggers in addiction.


The normal neuronal pathway for sound sensation allows music to have an effect on structures of the brain which are most responsible for emotional behavior (hypothalamus and limbic system), inhibiting negative emotional reactions which would otherwise delay or interfere with treatment and recovery. 


How Can Music Be Applied in an Addictions Treatment Program?


Music may be used as a natural and alternative reinforcement to replace unnatural feelings of reinforcement caused by drug abuse. Preferred music or sedative music for relaxation may be used as an alternative reinforcement to drugs for positive expression and sensory stimulation. Sedative music can target over-stimulated autonomic responses such as heart beat and blood pressure.


Music therapy can target motivation and impulse control patterns to confront self deception, impulse control, and redirection of addictive thinking patterns. It may be used to target emotional dependencies, triggers, and cycles which result in drug use and in other types of addiction. Music Therapy can restore motor functioning dulled by drug abuse that has affected functions of the cerebellum (governs muscle coordination) integrate balance control.


Music may be used to stimulate cognitive processing to restore cortical networks damaged by drugs. 


Our appreciation is expressed to the Office of University Research at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire for their funding and support of most of the projects represented in this website.



Lee Anna Rasar •Haas Fine Arts Bldg. 146 • University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire• Eau Claire, WI 54701



Updated: September 28, 2010 


Copyright © 2006

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