SINCE THE 1960s, propranolol has been a drug prescribed as a beta-blocker to lower blood pressure. Sylvia Terbeck, an experimental psychology and neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Oxford, recently noticed that propranolol also has tangible effects on certain parts the brain.
“Since I do neuroscience, I know from the biochemistry of the drug that it not only reduces your blood pressure, but it works in some areas of the brain,” says Terbeck in an interview with the Fulcrum. “I was specifically interested in the one [part of the brain] the drug is working on called the amygdala, which deals with emotion processing and fear processing. I wanted to test the hypothesis that fear responses are really causally relevant or crucially important for a prejudice.”
To test Terbeck’s hypothesis, she and a few fellow researchers screened a group of 36 Caucasian volunteers for medical eligibility. They gave one half a placebo, the other half propranolol, and then had the two groups take the Implicit Association Test developed at Harvard University, which measure’s individuals’ subconscious race biases.
“What usually happens in the test is that white participants seem to have a preference for white faces, meaning they find it easier to associate white faces with good words as compared to black faces with good words, or they find it easier to associate black faces with bad words compared to white faces with bad words,” explains Terbeck. “This favouritism—this bias in the response—disappeared when they took the drug.”
Monique Frize, an emeritus professor at the U of O and professor at Carleton University in biomedical engineering, commented on the possibility that Terbeck’s research can be seen as unethical.
“When I do anything with patients and doctors, I have to make sure that they’re all aware of the potential risks and the benefits,” notes Frize. “So I think if that was clearly explained, then I don’t see an ethical problem with people being encouraged to take this.”
Frize states that she would prefer research funding go towards altering people’s race prejudices in a more natural manner, as racism is not an issue that should be considered solved by taking a pill.
“I think it’s a cultural problem, I think it’s an attitude problem, and a behaviour problem,” says Frize of racial biases. “Instead of working on chemicals, I would work on [the patient’s] attitude. Why do they have this fear? I would prefer to see fear reduction through psychological means rather than chemical [ones].”
Terbeck notes she is not an ethicist, but she works closely with researchers who are aware of the sensitive nature of her research. Terbeck believes her findings are important, and that her research could lead to positive developments.
“One of my co-authors said that there’s a recent report that we might want to consider that for judges or in employment cases, in some decisions, some groups would be disadvantaged [and taking propranolol] would be a good thing.”
Terbeck is already working on new studies to confirm her findings and delve deeper into how our brains deal with fear and race prejudices.