A study has found that a single dose of propranolol, a high blood pressure medicine, can help improve social and language skills of autism patients. In the U.S. one in every 68 children has autism. There is currently no known cure for this neurodevelopment disorder but behavioral therapies and medications can help improve patient's social and communication skills.

The discovery was first described in 1987; however, the past trial was not randomized and controlled. In the past years, there had been very little propranolol research relative to autism. The drug is initially designed for high blood pressure treatment, but off-label propranolol is used to remedy performance anxiety for many years.

"However, this is the first study to show that a single dose of propranolol can improve the conversational reciprocity skills of individuals with autism," said senior study author Dr. David Beversdorf, an associate professor from the University of Missouri's (MU) departments of radiology, neurology and psychological sciences.

A research team was led by MU Center for Translational Neuroscience graduate student Rachel Zamzow. They enrolled 20 autism patients who were given either a placebo drug or a 40-milligram dosage of propranolol.

After an hour, the researchers measured the participants' performance on social skills that are crucial in maintaining a conversation such as the ability to maintain eye contact, nonverbal communication, transitions, shared conversation, sharing information and staying on topic. Those who took the single dose of propranolol have higher total scores compared to patients who took the placebo.

The team has noted that further research is required to analyze the effects of increased propranolol dosage. However, the preliminary results have revealed the drug delivers significant improvements in nonverbal and conversational skills of people with autism.

The team is hoping to conduct a larger clinical study to see the effects of regular propranolol dosage in order to determine who will best benefit from the medication. Beversdorf added that further studies could lead to new and improved treatments for people who have autism.

The study was published in the journal Psychopharmacology on Jan. 14.

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