Asperger's Meltdowns and Feel-GoodNeurotransmitter Serotonin

Asperger’s, meltdowns, and the feel-good neurotransmitter

Have you ever wondered what happens in the brain when you feel relaxed and happy, as opposed to when you feel stressed and anxious?

Can you imagine what would it be like if the mechanics of feeling relaxed did not work well?

Ask a person with Asperger’s and they may describe feelings of intense and pervasive anxiety, nervousness and frustration.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (i.e. brain chemical) involved in the regulation of a variety of crucial functions including mood, sleep, memory, and appetite (Brady, Siegel, Albers, & Price, 2005). Researchers have found “evidence for abnormalities of the neurotransmitter serotonin in both epilepsy and autism” (Diane C. Chugani, 2004). Another study recognized that these serotonin abnormalities in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) involve decreased receptors and transporters in the brain for this critical neurotransmitter (Daly et al., 2012). Researchers have also found data that, “suggest that humans undergo a period of high brain serotonin synthesis capacity during childhood, and that this developmental process is disrupted in autistic children” (D. C. Chugani et al., 1999).

Brain serotonin plays two other key roles: 1) it helps translate what a person sees, hears, feels, etc. into meaningful information for them and 2) it helps them deal with stress (Larson, Metzen, & Chacron, 2014). Low levels of serotonin in the brain can contribute to an individual misunderstanding their environment because the information from their senses is not processed efficiently in their brain (Larson et al., 2014).

These sensory processing issues can increase an individual’s anxiety levels. If a person is not completely confident that they understand what is going on around them, their brain will stay alert to possible threats. Furthermore, this anxiety is felt more intensely due to a lack of serotonin available to manage the stress. Consequently, a child with Asperger’s syndrome is often trapped in a vicious cycle of stress. Unfortunately, the anxiety of a person with Asperger’s is shown to gradually increase with age (Bejerot, Eriksson, & Mörtberg, 2014).

Doctors can prescribe SSRI medication to treat anxiety for individuals with Asperger’s syndrome, but these drugs can be costly, have undesirable side effects, and only offer temporary relief (Pettitt, 2015).

Mendability’s Sensory Enrichment Therapy offers a therapy program designed to increase serotonin levels, improve sensory processing, and decrease your child’s anxiety with no negative side effects, but rather have a positive impact on all brain functions. A recent study confirmed that after six months of therapy, children with autism saw their symptoms decrease. For some participants, the improvements were so significant that they no longer qualified for the autism diagnosis (Woo, Donnelly, Steinberg-Epstein, & Leon, 2015).

Good music can provide anxiety relief

One of the Sensory Enrichment exercises that is often prescribed to children and adults on this autism treatment program is very simple. You can use it safely and effectively when your loved one with Asperger’s syndrome is experiencing a meltdown. Simply have him or her listen to a piece of instrumental music that he or she likes (ideally, using headphones).

This can bring considerable relief to your child at the peak of his or her anxiety. For example, studies have examined the benefits of music to help relieve anxiety in patients getting ready for surgery (Gillen, Biley, & Allen, 2008) and to help relieve pain and anxiety (Bradshaw, Donaldson, Jacobson, Nakamura, & Chapman, 2011). The music played does not need to be classified as “classical” but we recommend that it should be orchestral, with no voices or words in order to get the best effect (Blood & Zatorre, 2001).

REFERENCES

  • Bejerot, S., Eriksson, J. M., & Mörtberg, E. (2014). Social anxiety in adult autism spectrum disorder. Psychiatry Research, 220(1-2), 705–707.
  • Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 98(20), 11818–11823.
  • Bradshaw, D. H., Donaldson, G. W., Jacobson, R. C., Nakamura, Y., & Chapman, C. R. (2011). Individual differences in the effects of music engagement on responses to painful stimulation. The Journal of Pain: Official Journal of the American Pain Society, 12(12), 1262–1273.
  • Brady, S., Siegel, G., Albers, R. W., & Price, D. (2005). Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. Academic Press.
  • Chugani, D. C. (2004). Serotonin in autism and pediatric epilepsies. Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 10(2), 112–116.
  • Chugani, D. C., Muzik, O., Behen, M., Rothermel, R., Janisse, J. J., Lee, J., & Chugani, H. T. (1999). Developmental changes in brain serotonin synthesis capacity in autistic and nonautistic children. Annals of Neurology, 45(3), 287–295.
  • Daly, E. M., Deeley, Q., Ecker, C., Craig, M., Hallahan, B., Murphy, C., … Murphy, D. G. M. (2012). Serotonin and the neural processing of facial emotions in adults with autism: an fMRI study using acute tryptophan depletion. Archives of General Psychiatry, 69(10), 1003–1013.
  • Gillen, E., Biley, F., & Allen, D. (2008). Effects of music listening on adult patients’ pre-procedural state anxiety in hospital. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 6(1), 24–49.
  • Larson, E. A., Metzen, M. G., & Chacron, M. J. (2014). Serotonin modulates electrosensory processing and behavior via 5-HT2-like receptors. Neuroscience, 271, 108–118.
  • Pettitt, A. (2015). Genetic Variations in the Serotonergic System Mediate a Combined, Weakened Response to SSRI Treatment: A Proposed Model(1,2). eNeuro, 2(3). http://doi.org/10.1523/ENEURO.0032-14.2015
  • Woo, C. C., Donnelly, J. H., Steinberg-Epstein, R., & Leon, M. (2015). Environmental enrichment as a therapy for autism: A clinical trial replication and extension. Behavioral Neuroscience, 129(4), 412–422.

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