Research Gone Wild: Courage in a Bottle - Pacific Standard

Research Gone Wild: Courage in a Bottle

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Propranolol is being billed as a promising candidate for curing debilitating anxiety disorders, but the research is still weak.

By Elena Gooray

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(Photo: iStockPhoto)

What Was Said

In a June 2016 cover story, the New Republic hailed the arrival of a “cure for fear.” The story profiled propranolol, a common heart medication that researchers have found also may eliminate certain phobias that can affect roughly 19 million Americans. It even looks like a promising candidate, the magazine reported, for curing — and possibly preventing — debilitating anxiety disorders that affect nearly one in five Americans. Better still, the magazine claimed, propranolol “holds out the promise of a simple treatment that doesn’t require prolonged therapy sessions or antidepressant medications.” BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, and other outlets circulated the article. No wonder: We love medical silver bullets.

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A version of this story first appeared in the

September/October 2016 issue

of Pacific Standard.

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The Problem With That

The research is weak on propranolol’s potential for alleviating anxiety disorders. The studies are few and the results mixed, which led a team of scholars to conclude in a 2016 Journal of Psychopharmacology meta-analysis that there isn’t enough evidence to use propranolol for that purpose. As for prevention, while the New Republic details a 2002 study involving a small number of patients in which propranolol prevented post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when taken shortly after trauma, another 2015 review suggested otherwise: that the pill can blunt some symptoms when taken in the immediate aftermath of trauma, but doesn’t seem to reduce the overall number of trauma diagnoses.

To Hype or Not to Hype?

Propranolol deserves the interest it has generated in its potential as a treatment for phobias and some PTSD symptoms — but not cover-story promotion as an all-around anxiety game-changer. Take five, and call your doctor after a few more years of study.

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