A study at the University of Missouri shows a drug used to treat high blood pressure, control heart rate and to reduce test anxiety might improve language and social skills in patients with autism.

Researchers say propanolol might also reduce difficulty with repetitive behaviors and eye contact … it might just come down to reducing stress, it might have to do with navigating the hard-wired functions in the brain.

“We can clearly say [the drug] has the potential to benefit language and may help people with autism fucntion appropriately in social situations…” said David Beversdorf, associate professor and chair at the Thomspon Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. “Enhancing both language and social function is significant because those are two fo the three main features of autism. Clinical trials will assess the drug’s effect on all three features, including repetitive behavior.”

The drug reduces the effect of norepinephrine brought on by stress to allow the brain to function as if there is no stress. Beversdorf says this worked in healthy individuals, and he’s ready to begin clinical trials to see how it might help those with autism. Basically, it squelches the “fight or flight” response so that language and social skills aren’t inhibited.

In previous studies, the researchers found taht the drug helped people with autism solve simple anagrams, word unscrambling tasks, increased semantic word fluency, which requires understanding the definition of words and connectivity among different brain regions. Beversdorf says it did not help with letter fluency, which involves identifying words that start with specific letters and requires less distributed connectivity among brain regions.

In this study, Beversdorf says, “We’re looking at markers of increased stress reactivity. If we find that those with higher stress reactivity are more sensative to the effects of propranolol, it might help to identify who will benefit most.”

He points out that the initial studies were done on those over the age of 14; clinical trials would see if it benefits children as well.

When asked about the escalating amount of drug cross-overs, such as anti-psychotics being prescribed to children with hyperactivity and attention defecit disorder, Beversdorf says he thinks there’s a large profit margin behind that trend. He says propanolol is a generic drug, so there’s obviously no profit margin behind the studies here.

AUDIO: Jessica Machetta reports [Mp3, 1:20 min.]

AUDIO: Dr. Beversdorf talks about the study [12 min.]