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ASD, Music and Serotonin

By Mithuna Prince

I would teach children music, physics and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.’ - Plato.

Social interaction helps reduce stress. But in the past few years, there have been little or no physical interactions due to the pandemic. We turn to social media for all means of social interaction. One of the first questions you’re asked when you meet new people on social media is, ‘What genre of music do you listen to?’A study by Peter Rentfrow, and Sam Gosling published in Psychological Science in 2006 found that college students getting to know each other over the Internet are more likely to speak about mutual musical interests rather than other topics. We try to predict the values and interests of the other person based on their musical interests. A certain amount of similarity and understanding of the other is needed for a stable relationship to prosper. The more similar your musical interests are the more possibilities for mutual social attraction, says a study by Diana Boer, Ronald Fischer, Micha Strack, Michael Bond, Eva Lo, and Jason Lam published in the September 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. We live in a world where people evaluate one another based on their musical interests. Such is the impact music has had on the human race since time immemorial.

Music plays an important role in the occupational therapy of depression, Alzheimer’s, autism, and even seizures. The one common aspect of all these conditions is that they all arise from anomalies in the brain. The brain is the nervous center, thereby controlling every activity in the body. One recurrent disorder arising from brain anomalies is ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’. It was earlier called autism or pervasive developmental disorder which was changed to ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’ in 2013 by the American Psychiatric Association. ASD is now an umbrella term that covers many conditions.

ASD is a lifelong condition with a median age of diagnosis greater than 4 years although most current intervention strategies target children less than 6 years to promote early behavioral change. Individuals with ASD and their families face significant challenges during developmental transitions. School-age children in particular, often remain unengaged in social settings, reducing opportunities for socio-communicative development.

One common factor of autistic individuals is the anomaly in the serotonin secretion. Serotonin, commonly known as the feel-good chemical, is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in controlling depression and anxiety. When serotonin is reduced in the amygdala, a small almond-shaped region in the subcortical brain that processes fear, the exertion of the amygdala increases. This leads to increased fear processing, which can result in anxiety and depression.

Serotonin is known to play a role in infant brain development before it assumes its role as a neurotransmitter in the mature brain. Serotonin regulates both the development of serotonergic neurons (termed autoregulation of development) and the development of target tissues. Disruption of serotonergic development can leave permanent alterations in brain function and behavior. This may be the reason for the decreased amounts of brain tissue in parts of the cerebellum, the brain structure at the base of the skull for autistic individuals, according to a meta-analysis of 17 imaging studies.

Coming back to music, listening to songs can improve the levels of serotonin in the brain thereby elevating the mood and significantly diminishing the anxiety of autistic individuals. From past studies, most autistic individuals tend to have lower levels of brain serotonin, not serotonin in the bloodstream.

So if music can temporarily increase levels of serotonin in the brain, which in turn has positive effects on the social behavior and communication skills of the patient,(hypothetically) we could improve the lives of the affected by introducing serotonin in their brains (and other non-pharmacologic methods like diet, exercise, etc). Mayo Clinic researchers have concluded that, through deep brain stimulation, a Wireless Instantaneous Neurotransmitter Concentration System (WINCS) can detect and measure serotonin levels in the brain. The findings suggest that in the future such measurements of serotonin may help establish a therapeutic mechanism of deep brain stimulation. This study was published in the September 2010 issue of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

Although music is an advantage to most autistic individuals, the lack of neuroscientific evidence is a significant drawback in ASD-music-related research. If the effects of music on the autistic brain can be fully understood, we will be able to complete the puzzle of ASD. It is the key to all future advancements in ASD research.


  1. National Institute Of Mental Health : Autism Spectrum Disorder

  2. National Library Of Medicine : The serotonin system in autism spectrum disorder : from biomarker to animal models

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