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Common heart disease drug could 'combat racism'

Scientists believe the results can be explained by the fact that racism is based on fear.

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File photo
Image: Julien Behal/PA Archive/Press Association Images

A COMMON HEART disease drug may have the side-effect of reducing people’s racial prejudices, according to a new study.

Scientists involved in the Oxford University research said patients who took a beta-blocker named propranolol scored significantly lower on a test used to evaluate subconscious racist attitudes than others who took a placebo.

Researchers believe the results can be explained by the fact that racism is based on fear, the Telegraph reports.

As well as being used to reduce blood pressure, beta-blockers can also help to manage the physical symptoms of anxiety.

The drug is thought to work by stopping the activation of the ‘automatic’ nervous system and areas in the brain – named the amygdalae – which generate emotional responses. Researchers said that subconscious thoughts are triggered by the automatic nervous system.

“Our results offer new evidence about the processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias,” said Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck, from Oxford University, who led the study.

Racial Implicit Association Test

The study involved 36 subjects: 18 were given propranolol and the remainder were given a placebo. A few hours later, volunteers were asked to take part in a ‘racial Implicit Association Test’ (IAT), during which they were shown images of black and white people.

Participants were asked to use the “feeling thermometer” approach – a tool used to assess prejudice – and report on how “warm” or “cold” they felt towards each image, on a scale on 1 to 10.

A third of those who had taken the propranolol returned a negative IAT score, meaning they demonstrated a subconsciously non-racist attitude, reports globalpost.

“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,” said Terbeck.

“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,” she added.

The study is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology

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