David Beversdorf of the University of Missouri found the drug is beneficial for improving language development and social communication in people with autism.
"We can clearly say that propranolol has the potential to benefit language and may help people with autism function appropriately in social situations, including making eye contact with others," Beversdorf said in a statement. "Enhancing both language and social function is significant because those are two of the three main features of autism. Clinical trials will assess the drug's effect on all three features, including repetitive behaviors."
Propranolol has been used for decades with minimal side effects reported in healthy individuals, Beversdorf said.
The drug acts by reducing the effect of norepinephrine brought on by stress, to allow the brain to function as if there is no stress, which is beneficial for people anxious taking tests. In people with autism, the brain is hardwired in a different way, making processing more rigid in terms of social function and language, but the drug acts on these hardwired processes and improves tasks and functioning in these areas, Beversdorf said.
Beversdorf and colleagues said the next step is to conduct clinical trials to determine whether the benefits are sustained over time and if the benefits outweigh other effects.
The findings are published in Cognitive and Behavior Neurology.
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