In a small but carefully conducted study, researchers have shown that one dose of a commonly used blood-pressure medicine temporarily improves conversational skills in adults with autism.
The report appears in the journal Psychopharmacology. It was done at the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. The Thompson Center is one of 14 sites in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
The medicine tested in the study – the beta-blocker propranolol – has long been used by public speakers, musicians and others to ease performance anxiety and related shakiness.
"Propranolol was first reported to improve the language and sociability skills of individuals with autism in 1987,” says senior author and neurologist David Beversdorf. But the effect was never verified with a controlled trial comparing propranolol with a placebo, or dummy pill, he adds.
The new study showed that a single dose of propranolol improves “conversational reciprocity,” or the back and forth flow of conversation.
The study included 20 teens and young adults with autism (19 males and 1 female). Each took either a 40-milligram dose of propranolol or a placebo pill. An hour after administration, the researchers had a structured conversation with the participants, scoring their performance on six social skills necessary to maintain a conversation: staying on topic, sharing information, reciprocity or shared conversation, transitions or interruptions, nonverbal communication and maintaining eye contact. The researchers found the total communication scores were significantly greater when the individual took propranolol compared to the placebo.
"Though more research is needed to study its effects after more than one dose, these preliminary results show a potential benefit of propranolol to improve the conversational and nonverbal skills of individuals with autism," Dr. Beversdorf says. "Next, we hope to study the drug in a large clinical trial to establish the effects of regular doses and determine who would most likely benefit from this medication." As part of further research, researchers will need to assess the safety of long-term use in people who don’t have high blood pressure.