Can the blood pressure pill propranolol cure racism?

( — A new study from Oxford University has found that a commonly used blood pressure medication – propranolol – seems to reduce subconscious racist behaviour.

The study – which involved only 36 white student volunteers – found that the drug somehow reduces fear that is involved in some forms of racial prejudice, according to one of its authors Sylvia Terbeck, a PhD student in the experimental psychology, philosophy and neuroscience department at Oxford.

Terbeck said she wanted to look more closely at the role fear might play in prejudice in an interview with the Star.

Previous studies have found that a region in the brain known as the amygdala – which has a role in the emotion fear – becomes activated when white people are shown black faces. And many believe fear plays a role in prejudice.

The drug propranolol is believed to block some brain chemicals in this region of the brain, as well as the activation of the autonomic nervous system, which controls key functions of the body, including heart rate and blood pressure.

The study, which was published in the journal Psychopharmacology, divided up the 36 volunteers into two groups. One got a placebo. The other got the blood pressure medication.

Then both groups were given the Implicit Association Test which was developed by Harvard University. The test, designed to measure implicit racial prejudice, asks people to make associations between good and bad words, and black and white faces on the computer.

“What usually happens,” said Terbeck, “is that people seem to favour white over black faces. That means they find it easier to associate the positive words with white faces as compared to black faces. And they find it easier to associate negative words with black faces compared to white faces.”

The study found that 100 per cent of the placebo group ended up being implicitly racially prejudiced in some way, Terbeck said.

But in the group that took the medication only one-third of the group had a score at all and it was marginal. The other two-thirds of the group showed no prejudice whatsoever and didn’t register any score on the IAT.

Concludes Terbeck: “I think that it’s the first step to show or to understand the neurobiology of racial prejudice and to say that probably fear plays a role in some forms of racial prejudice.”


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