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Oxford University researchers have found that a commonly used heart disease drug may have an subconscious affect on altering racist attitudes.

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In a test of volunteers who took the beta-blocker propranolol, results showed that were less racially biased than subjects who took a placebo.

Two groups of 18 participants took part in the study. Each volunteer was asked to undertake a “racial Implicit Association Test” (IAT) one to two hours after taking propranolol or the placebo, according to an Australian Associated Press report.

The volunteers categorized positive and negative words and pictures of Black and White individuals on a computer screen. Those who took propranolol scored much lower on the racial IAT and a third of them achieved a negative score, meaning a majority of their subconscious associations were non-racist. No one in the placebo group had such results, according to the study.

Researchers believe that since racism is linked to fear, propranolol may have affected the volunteers’ responses.

Propranolol works to temper nerve circuits related to heart rate and the part of the brain that monitors fear and emotional responses.

Oxford University experimental psychologist Sylvia Terbeck, who led the study and published it in the journal Psychopharmacology, explained:

“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.”

However, Oxford professor Julian Savulescu, a co-author of the study, wouldn’t concede that the finding puts a “cure” for racism around the corner.

He noted that biological research aimed at improving people’s morals has a dark history. He says:

“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.”


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Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog