A drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, anxiety, and panic attacks has been found to improve the working memory of people with autism spectrum disorders.
Research by University of Missouri-Columbia investigators has determined propranolol may help improve the language abilities and social functioning of people with autism who typically have difficulty communicating with others because they process language, facial expressions, and social cues differently.
The researchers noted working memory affects individuals’ ability to retain information for a short period of time, allowing them to follow conversations, complete puzzles, and remember directions, for instance.
Neurologist David Beversdorf explained that the drug may calm nervous responses that hinder autistics’ ability to respond appropriately to stressful situations.
"Seeing a tiger might signal a fight or flight response. Nowadays, a stressor such as taking an exam could generate the same response, which is not helpful," said Beversdorf, an associate professor in the Departments of Radiology and Neurology in the MU School of Medicine. "Propranolol works by calming those nervous responses, which is why some people benefit from taking the drug to reduce anxiety."
For the study, researchers tracked the effects of propranolol on 14 young adult patients of the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The found it greatly enhanced the working memory of those given the drug, but it had little to no effect on a second group of 13 study participants who do not have autism.
The researchers said the findings suggest that doctors not prescribe propranolol solely to improve working memory in individuals with autism, but that patients who already take the prescription drug might benefit.
"People with an [ASD] who are already being prescribed propranolol for a different reason, such as anxiety, might also see an improvement in working memory," said Shawn Christ, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the MU College of Arts and Science who helped conduct the study, published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
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