Does Propranolol Reduce Racism? Probably Yes, Subconsciously
by Christian Nordqvist
11 Mar 2012
A small study found that people's subconscious racial bias is considerably reduced if they are taking propranolol, a heart disease drug, researchers from Oxford University wrote in the journal Psychopharmacology. The study was carried out by a team of psychologists, ethicists and psychiatrists.
Lead author, Sylvia Terbeck and team carried out an experiment on 36 individuals. 18 were given propranolol, while the other 18 took a placebo that looked just like the propranolol. They found that those on the heart medication scored considerably lower on the Implicit Attitude Test which gauged their subconscious racial bias. The test measures people's levels of subconscious racism.
The authors stressed that propranolol made no difference in people's explicit attitudes to races.
What is propranolol (INN)
Propranolol (INN), molecular formula C16H21NO2, is a sympatholytic non-selective beta blocker. Sympatholytics are medications that are used for the treatment of anxiety, panic and high blood pressure (hypertension).
Propranolol was the first ever effective beta blocker. It is available in both brand name forms, such as Inderal, Deralin, Dociton, Sumial, and generic form as propranolol hydrochloride. It is a banned substance in the Olympics, because of its use in controlling stage fright (social anxiety) and tremors.
Propranolol is also used in treatment for cluster headaches prophylaxis, essential tremor, glaucoma, migraine prophylaxis, primary exertional headache, shaky hands, and tension headache (off label use).
Propranolol blocks activation in the peripheral autonomic nervous system, as well as in the brain area that impacts on emotional responses and fear.
How does propranolol reduce racism?
The authors suggest that racial bias is based on automatic, non-conscious-fear responses, which propranolol reduces.
Sylvia Terbeck said:
"Our results offer new evidence about the processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias. Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. Given the key role that such implicit attitudes appear to play in discrimination against other ethnic groups, and the widespread use of propranolol for medical purposes, our findings are also of considerable ethical interest.
Many people with medical conditions are probably already on drugs which affect subconscious bias and more research is needed into how drugs which affect our nervous system affect our moral attitudes and practices.
Co-author,, Prof. Julian Savulescu, wrote:
"Such research raises the tantalising possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis.
Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history. And propranolol is not a pill to cure racism. But given that many people are already using drugs like propranolol which have 'moral' side effects, we at least need to better understand what these effects are.