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Heart disease drug may 'reduce implicit racial bias'

Oxford researchers find that taking Propranolol, a drug used to treat heart disease, may reduce racial feelings at the subconscious level
Gurpreet Narwan on Thursday 15th March 2012
Photograph: e-MagineArt.com

A recent study by researchers at the University has found that those who consume a specific type of heart disease medication are less likely to be racially prejudiced at a subconscious level.

The drug, propranolol, is commonly used to treat anxiety and panic as well heart disease, but also acts on the part of the brain involved in emotional responses such as fear, upon which some scientists believe that racism is founded.

The study, led by Dr Sylvia Terbeck, required 18 participants to consume propranolol and another 18 to take a placebo. The participants then undertook the IAT (Implicit Attitude Test), which involves the sorting of images of dark and light skinned individuals as well as negative and positive words.

The results of the test showed that, unlike any members of the placebo group, a third of those who took the drug obtained a negative result, meaning that they were implicitly biased against any racist sentiments.

However, Dr Terbeck warned against any claims that propranolol could be taken to modulate human behaviour. She stated, It is to jump to conclusions if people think that the pill cures racism; it misinterprets the findings. What we found was that it had an effect on implicit racial bias.”

She explained that racism is a “complex thing,” and added, “This drug affects one component. Your attitude to a lot of people consists of what you feel and think. This drug changes what you feel, not what you think.”

As well as examining their implicit bias, participants were also tested on their explicit racial attitudes after taking propranolol. In the latter, the drug was found to have no effect.

Nonetheless, Dr Terbeck was keen to stress that the findings were “promising”, adding, “It might give us some more understanding about the brain.”

Such feelings were shared by Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a co-author of the study, as he stated, “[This] research raises the tantalising possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis.”

He warned that “Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history,” and added, “Propranolol is not a pill to cure racism.” He concluded by calling for a “better understanding” of the side effects of the drug.

In response to the findings, one second year biochemist commented, “I have taken propranolol before and I honestly didn't notice any difference in my thoughts about people of a different race. It may be because I wasn't thinking about it at the time but even reflecting on it now, I really don't think there was any difference.”

Another added, “Somehow I don't think it's going to turn neo-nazis into people who protest for minority groups.”

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