BOSTON — A drug some musicians and actors use to deal with stage fright also appears effective in helping students overcome the adverse effects of anxiety that makes them score poorly on exams, a researcher says.
A new study found that students who scored low when they took the Scholastic Aptitude Test the first time because of anxiety improved their performance when they took propranolol and then tried the test again.
"You get a major benefit out of it when taking a test because it cuts out memory loss," said Dr. Harris C. Faigel, director of health services at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
The kind of anxiety some students experience when they take a test appears to trigger a natural brain tranquilizer known as an endorphin. The substance calms the individual but also tends to make it harder to think clearly and use their memory, Faigel said.
Propranolol is one of a group of drugs known as beta blockers. The same substance is used in much higher doses to lower blood pressure. In small doses, it appears to block the release of the endorphin. Taking the drug thus makes students less calm but better able to think clearly, Faigel said.
The study indicates that the drug could be useful for some students. But Faigel stressed that it should only be used for those suffering from extreme anxiety and for short periods of time.
"You run the risk of teaching a teen-ager, who is very impressionable, that the way to solve a problem is taking a drug. You certainly don't want to do that," he said.
"I think it can be used with care, as long as people understand the precautions that are necessary."
The drug is not addictive, but can make some people sleepy and have other adverse side effects, such as aggravating asthma.
Faigel also said propranolol should only be used when there is not enough time to teach students natural stress management techniques. In the long run, even students who use the drug should be taught those techniques, he said.
The study involved 30 high school juniors and seniors who had done poorly on the SAT even though they had either taken a preparation course or been tutored and said they felt confident.
Twenty-two of the students took the drug before they took the test the second time and eight took nothing.
Much Higher Scores
While taking the test a second time usually improves scores by an average of 14 points on both the verbal and math sections, the students who took the drug first averaged 50 points higher in verbal and 74 points higher in math.
Those who did not take the drug improved by one point on the verbal section and 10 points on the math section on the average.
The study does not provide conclusive evidence that the drug works for exam anxiety, but it is highly suggestive that it does, Faigel said.
In addition to students, the drug could be used for job candidates who have trouble with interviews, he said.