A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2016 | Number 1, Volume 30

BP medication may improve conversational skills in autism

A medication commonly used to treat high blood pressure may improve the conversational skills of individuals with autism, a new study suggests. 

The drug propranolol is a beta blocker. In addition to lowering blood pressure, it is often prescribed to treat anxiety, stage fright, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While the drug is considered relatively safe for short-term use, long-term use can result in side effects ranging from gastrointestinal problems to slow heartbeat and fainting. 

Years ago, a study reported that propranolol could improve the language and social skills of individuals with autism. In the new placebo-controlled study, Rachel Zamzow and colleagues analyzed the effects of propranolol on the conversational skills of 20 participants with autism recruited from a treatment center. 

The researchers gave participants either 40 milligrams of propranolol or a placebo. An hour later, they conducted a structured conversation with the participants, measuring six social skills needed to converse well: staying on topic, sharing information, reciprocity (shared conversation), transitions or interruptions, nonverbal communication, and eye contact. The researchers also measured participants’ autonomic activity and anxiety levels. 

The researchers report that propranolol improved performance in the areas of reciprocity and nonverbal communication. The effect was not associated with participants’ autonomic activity or anxiety level. The researchers now plan to study the drug in a large clinical trial to determine the effects of regular doses.


Citations

“Effects of propranolol on conversational reciprocity in autism spectrum disorder: a pilot, double-blind, single-dose psychopharmacological challenge study,” Rachel M. Zamzow, Bradley J. Ferguson, Janine P. Stichter, Eric C. Porges, Alexandra S. Ragsdale, Morgan L. Lewis, and David Q. Beversdorf, Psychopharmacology, January 14, 2016 (online). Address: David Beversdorf, [email protected]

—and— 

“Blood pressure medicine may improve conversational skills of individuals with autism,” news release, University of Missouri-Columbia, February 1, 2016.