In a new study, researchers found a low-cost blood pressure drug known as propranolol could provide cognitive and social benefits for those living with autism.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of Missouri.
One in 59 children in the United States has been diagnosed with a form of autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The signs of autism begin in early childhood and can affect individuals differently. However, many with autism share similar symptoms, including difficulties with social communication.
That is the core symptom researchers targeted with a pilot study to look at how this drug affected processing of language in the brain.
Drugs known as “beta-blockers” have been used since the 1960s as a low-cost, safe and effective means to lower heart rate and control blood pressure.
According to the team, drug propranolol is used for test anxiety and performance anxiety, and the researchers suspected it might help with social anxiety.
The study involved 13 people with autism and 13 without the disorder. They had a mean age of 22.5 years old.
Each participant completed three MRI brain-imaging sessions after taking either a placebo, the beta-blocker propranolol or the beta-blocker nadolol—which is similar to propranolol except that it does not cross the vascular barrier into the brain.
The team discovered in the autism group that propranolol improved performance on the word generation test, and the MRI results showed the drug altered regions of the brain linked to word processing and improved specific task information processing.
The team now is already working on a larger study involving propranolol. They’ve secured a federal grant from the Department of Defense (DOD) to examine the benefits of the drug on a larger and younger population of autism patients.
Treating autism is challenging because of the many subtypes and factors that contribute to the disorder, so this study will monitor factors that might predict who will respond best to the drug.
The lead author of the study is John Hegarty, Ph.D.
The study is published in Autism.
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