Lifestyle & Belief

Common heart drug may combat racism as side effect, study suggests


Israelis of Ethiopian origin take part in a rally against racism on Jan. 10, 2012, in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, Israel.


Uriel Sinai

A common heart disease drug may also alter subconscious racial attitudes, a new study has found, leading scientists to suggest that racism is based on fear.

Tests on volunteers who took the beta-blocker propranolol showed they were less racially biased than those who took a placebo, the Independent reported.

Propranolol acts on nerve circuits that govern automatic functions such as heart rate, as well as those that govern the part of the brain involved in fear and emotional responses. For that reason, it is also used to treat anxiety and panic.

According to the Australian Associated Press, the scientists conducting the study believed the discovery could be explained by the fact that racism was fundamentally founded on fear.

AAP cited experimental psychologist Doctor Sylvia Terbeck, from Oxford University, who led the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, as saying:

"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."

According to the Associated Press, two groups of 18 volunteers were involved in the study, with each being asked to undertake a "racial Implicit Association Test" (IAT) one to two hours after taking propranolol or the placebo.

Asked to categorize positive and negative words when shown  pictures of black and white people on a computer screen, more than a third of the volunteers taking propranolol had a "negative" IAT score — effectively, they were biased towards being non-racist at a subconscious level.

The same result was not seen in any member of the placebo group.

Co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, from Oxford University's Faculty of Philosophy, reportedly said: "Such research raises the tantalizing 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."

(More from GlobalPost: Peru, Latin America's hidden growth story)