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Anxiety Drug Could Improve Socialization in Individuals with Autism, MU Researchers Find

March 5th, 2014

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

By Jerett Rion

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often struggle with social interaction. Now, University of Missouri researchers have found that a prescription drug, propranolol, could improve socialization in individuals with autism.

“The results from our study indicate propranolol is a promising drug for treating autism symptoms,” said David Beversdorf, an associate professor in the departments of radiology and neurology in the MU School of Medicine. “The brains of individuals with autism are hardwired in such a way that leads to more rigid processing in terms of social function, and in some cases, language. Propranolol seems to act on these processes in individuals with autism, which results in improved functioning on these tasks.”

Beversdorf and his colleagues interviewed adults with autism an hour after they had taken propranolol. During the conversations, the researchers rated the individuals’ sociability, whether or not the participants stayed on topic and whether or not they had appropriate nonverbal communication. After the interviews, the researchers tested the participants’ problem solving and memory by giving them word puzzles to complete and a list of words to memorize. The participants who took propranolol solved the word puzzles faster than a control group of individuals with autism who did not take the drug. In addition, adults with autism who took propranolol had higher sociability scores compared to the control group.

The study also revealed that individuals who have autism and also experience high levels of stress and anxiety may benefit the most from propranolol, a drug which currently is prescribed to treat anxiety.

“Thousands of years ago, the fight or flight response helped our ancestors survive; nowadays, those same anxious responses can be triggered in harmless instances, such as taking tests,” Beversdorf said. “The drug has been used to treat anxiety, high blood pressure and heart abnormalities with modest side effects. Propranolol calms nervous responses and helps the brain believe there is no stress, which is why the drug currently is prescribed to reduce anxiety.”

Research from the study, funded by a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, was presented at the meeting of the 2013 Society for Neuroscience. Beversdorf and his colleagues hope to conduct clinical trials to confirm the effectiveness of propranolol in treating individuals with autism and currently are seeking funding to move forward with this project. Beversdorf also has an appointment in the MU Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science and at the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. As the largest center in Missouri specializing in ASD and other developmental disorders, the Thompson Center is a national leader in confronting the challenges of autism and other developmental conditions through its collaborative programs that integrate research, clinical service delivery, education and public policy.