Objective and Background: Autism is characterized by repetitive behaviors and impaired socialization and communication. Preliminary evidence showed possible language benefits in autism from the β-adrenergic antagonist propranolol. Earlier studies in other populations suggested propranolol might benefit performance on tasks involving a search of semantic and associative networks under certain conditions. Therefore, we wished to determine whether this benefit of propranolol includes an effect on semantic fluency in autism.
Methods: A sample of 14 high-functioning adolescent and adult participants with autism and 14 matched controls were given letter and category word fluency tasks on 2 separate testing sessions; 1 test was given 60 minutes after the administration of 40 mg propranolol orally, and 1 test was given after placebo, administered in a double-blinded, counterbalanced manner.
Results: Participants with autism were significantly impaired compared with controls on both fluency tasks. Propranolol significantly improved performance on category fluency, but not letter fluency among autism participants. No drug effect was observed among controls. Expected drug effects on heart rate and blood pressure were observed in both the groups.
Conclusions: Results are consistent with a selective beneficial effect of propranolol on flexibility of access to semantic and associative networks in autism, with no observed effect on phonological networks. Further study will be necessary to understand potential clinical implications of this finding.