Published: Thursday, September 28, 2006
Study: Steroids can kill brain cells
Athletes use steroids to stimulate muscle-mass growth.
In a new finding that appears to confirm observations of "'roid rage" in steroid users, Yale University researchers report that high levels of testosterone can result in a catastrophic loss of brain cells.
Taking large doses of androgens, or steroids, is known to cause hyper-excitability, a highly aggressive nature and suicidal tendencies. Such behavioral changes could be evidence of altered brain-cell function caused by the steroids, said Barbara Ehrlich, senior author of the study published Wednesday in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. She is a professor of pharmacology and physiology at Yale's School of Medicine.
Her team worked with brain cells cultured in a lab setting, rather than with human subjects. However, Ehrlich said the results clearly demonstrate that cells die after being treated with elevated levels of testosterone for even six to 12 hours.
"We can show that when you have high levels of steroids, you have high testosterone, and that can destroy the nerve cells. We know that when you lose brain cells, you lose function," Ehrlich said.
The process of brain-cell self-destruction is much the same as in those with Alzheimer's disease, the researcher said.
Yet other research has shown that boosting testosterone in older men whose levels of the male sex hormone naturally plummet actually helps protect brain function and memory.
"Too little testosterone is bad, too much is bad, but the right amount is perfect," Ehrlich said.
Its role in stimulating muscle-mass growth is why steroids have been used and abused by athletes in recent years. But their sustained use can cause side effects that include cancer, jaundice, high blood pressure, severe acne, tremors and changes in cholesterol levels that increase the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Psychiatric effects of the drugs may not be entirely due to the destruction of brain cells, however. There's evidence that steroids have some "feel-good" effect that contributes to a sense of invincibility when ingested. But because athletes tend to take them in on-off cycles to maximize their effects, the euphoria is often replaced with feelings of depression.