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'Betablocking' autistics' aggression.

"Betablocking' autistics' aggression

Antihypertensive "betablocker' drugs, which interfere with nervous stimulation of specific receptors in the heart, recently have been found to ease aggressive and impulsive behavior in some cases of schizophrenia, brain damage and severe mental retardation. Researchers at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston now report that a small group of adult autistics have shown moderate to marked drops in similar behavior, such as head-banging and unprovoked attacks on others, thanks to betablocker treatment. Furthermore, according to psychiatrist John J. Ratey and his colleagues, the seven men and one woman receiving the medication showed more responsiveness to others and a gradually increasing flexibility in trying new activities and learning new skills.

Subjects were recruited from three Boston-area hospitals, where they displayed severe behavior problems. A betablocker, usually propranolol, was prescribed at a low dose; the dosage was raised every one or two weeks if problems continued and if pulse and blood pressure remained in the normal range. Treatment lasted an average of 14 months, but hospital staff and autistics' families usually noticed a dampening of aggression and increased friendliness within a few months. Fear and panic in social situations and repetitive rituals declined over the course of treatment. This made it possible to reduce or stop neuroleptic drug use for five subjects; neuroleptic medication is often used in an attempt to control aggressive behavior among autistics, says Ratey, but it can lead to movement disorders (SN: 7/20/85, p. 45) that promote impulsive behavior.

Betablockers, speculate the scientists, have a soothing effect on an autistic's constant state of "hyperarousal.' Repetitive rituals and social withdrawal are, in part, attempts to keep this arousal under control, they explain, but outbursts can occur with social demands or changes in surroundings. The root causes of autism, however, are not known.
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Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:May 31, 1986
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