Anabolic steroids could be setting up a generation of young athletes for long-term anger management problems.

Two weeks before the opening ceremonies in Torino, a Brazilian bobsledder tested positive for illegal steroid use. Once the Olympics began, a Russian silver medalist in the biathlon was stripped of her medal for taking amphetamines, and two skiers fled back across the border to Austria after a police raid found syringes and glucose drips at their residence.
However, those who abuse performance-enhancing drugs can suffer consequences far worse than being sent home from the Olympics. One well-documented side effect is increased aggression, commonly referred to as “’roid rage.”

A new study in the February issue of Behavioral Neuroscience suggests that aggression caused by steroids doesn’t go away just because the user has stopped juicing. The finding raises concerns that adolescent steroid abusers could be putting themselves at risk of long-term behavioral problems.

“The question we were interested in was: If you were to expose an organism to anabolic steroids during adolescent development, would the aggression that comes about as part of that be persistent?” said Richard Melloni, the study’s lead author and an associate professor of psychology at Boston’s Northeastern University. “We found that the aggression was lasting.”

Melloni’s team traced the behavioral change to a molecule called vasopressin. During steroid use, the vasopressin system in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland becomes hyperactive, continuing to overproduce the chemical even after withdrawal.

“There was a very strong correlation between behavior and biology, which further suggested to us that the enhancement of this neuro-chemical signal in the brain was the cause of the steroid-induced aggression,” said Melloni.

To test their hypothesis, researchers injected adolescent hamsters with a cocktail of different steroids, eventually halting treatment once the hamsters reached maturity. The scientists then monitored behavior during withdrawal, looking for signs that the rodent “’roid rage” had worn off.

Even weeks after their last injection, the hamsters behaved far more aggressively than normal. They viciously bit, charged and chased meeker animals placed in their cages.

Two weeks corresponds to roughly half the rodents’ adolescence, so the same belligerence in humans could take much longer to recede.

The similarity between rodent and human vasopressin systems makes the finding especially worrisome. Increasing numbers of American teenagers are following the example of Jose Canseco and juicing. They expect that any side effects they experience will be temporary.

“Folks that use these drugs just don’t know about the very strong sets of data indicating that steroids change brain wiring,” said Melloni. “Young people are using this stuff at a pretty alarming rate with no understanding of what it does to the developing brain.”

Originally published March 2, 2006


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