A new study by University of Missouri investigators discovers that propranolol (Inderal), a drug commonly used to treat high blood pressure, anxiety and panic, may improve the working memory of individuals with autism and ultimately improve communication ability.
Prior research had determined that propranolol could improve the language abilities and social functioning of people with an ASD. Interpersonal skills are a profound challenge to those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because they process language, facial expressions and social cues differently.
Working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate a small amount of information for a short period; it allows people to remember directions, complete puzzles and follow conversations. Neurologist Dr. David Beversdorf and research neuropsychologist Shawn Christ, Ph.D., found that propranolol improves the working memory performance of people with an ASD.
“Seeing a tiger might signal a fight or flight response. Nowadays, a stressor such as taking an exam could generate the same response, which is not helpful,” said Beversdorf.
“Propranolol works by calming those nervous responses, which is why some people benefit from taking the drug to reduce anxiety.”
In the study, propranolol increased working memory performance in a sample of 14 young adult patients with autism, but had little to no effect on a group of 13 study participants who do not have autism.
The researchers do not recommend that doctors prescribe propranolol solely to improve working memory in individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, but patients who already take the prescription drug might benefit.
“People with an autism spectrum disorder who are already being prescribed propranolol for a different reason, such as anxiety, might also see an improvement in working memory,” said Christ.
Future research will incorporate clinical trials to assess further the relationship between cognitive and behavioral functioning and connectivity among various regions of the brain.
The study has been published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
Source: University of Missouri