London - When we find something funny, our brains as well as our faces “light up”, it seems.

The funnier a joke is, the more activity is seen in “reward centres” - specific neurons which create feelings of pleasure, research shows.

And learning how humour affects the brain may have a serious use. For experts believe it could help determine whether patients in a vegetative state experience positive emotions.

A team of Medical Research Council scientists scanned the brains of volunteers to compare what happened when they heard ordinary sentences and jokes.

This showed that the reward centres “lit up” much more in response to humour.

What is more, the strength of the response depended on how funny each of the 12 patients found these jokes.

Researcher Dr Matt Davis, from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, said: “We found a characteristic pattern of brain activity when the jokes used were puns.

“For example, jokes like “Why don’t cannibals eat clowns? Because they taste funny!” involved brain areas for language processing more than jokes that didn’t involve wordplay.

“This response differed again from non-humorous sentences that also contained words with more than one meaning.

“Mapping how the brain processes jokes and sentences shows how language contributes to the pleasure of getting a joke.

“We can use this as a benchmark for understanding how people who cannot communicate normally react to jokes.”

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, may help doctors “reach out” to brain injury patients in vegetative states. It could also help people with emotional problems. - Daily Mail