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Effect of Propranolol on Word Fluency in Autism

Beversdorf, David Q. MD*,†,‡,§,∥; Saklayen, Sanjida PhD§,∥; Higgins, Katherine F.; Bodner, Kimberly E. MA, MS; Kanne, Stephen M. PhD‡,♯; Christ, Shawn E. PhD†,‡

Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology: March 2011 - Volume 24 - Issue 1 - p 11–17
doi: 10.1097/WNN.0b013e318204d20e
Original Studies

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.

Departments of *Radiology and Neurology

Psychological Sciences

Nutrition and Exercise Physiology

Health Psychology

The Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO

§College of Medicine

Integrated Biomedical Graduate Program, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH

Supported by Research Scholar grant from the Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and the Department of Radiology Research Investment Fund at the University of Missouri.

Reprints: David Q. Beversdorf, MD, William and Nancy Thompson Endowed Chair in Radiology, 205 Portland St, Room 130E, Columbia, MO 65211 (e-mail: beversdorfd@health.missouri.edu).

Received August 24, 2010

Accepted October 29, 2010

© 2011 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.