It is well understood that hormones can influence the brain. The most universally recognized are the effects of sex steroids such as testosterone and estrogen on mood. But the influence of these hormones can go much deeper, and have significant effects on brain structure and function. We focus much of our attention to this on the developing brain, though hormones are known to play important roles here throughout life. Is it a reach then to suggest that anabolic steroids, hormonal drugs, might damage the brains of long term abusers? A recent study suggests not. It points to potentially harmful effects on cognitive function.
The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. It used MRI imaging to look at the brain structures of 10 long-term male weightlifters and anabolic steroid users. These were compared with the scans of 10 age-matched controls that were also involved in weightlifting, but reported no history of anabolic steroid use. The scans included an evaluation of the amygdala for resting-state fMRI functional connectivity (rsFC), which measures the interactivity of brain regions when the subject is at rest. The men also underwent tests to evaluate visuospatial memory, or the spatial relationship between objects.
The researchers found significant differences between the groups. The anabolic steroid abusers had a larger right amygdala than the men that reported never taking the drugs. Furthermore, they noted significantly reduced functional connectivity with frontal, striatal, limbic, hippocampal, and visual cortical areas of the brain. There was also a statistically strong association with enlarged left amygdala, suggesting there may be an effect here as well. Chemistry analysis suggested anabolic steroid abusers had increased glutamate turnover in the brain, which might reflect changes in cerebral metabolism. Lastly, the anabolic steroid users had lower scores on the visuospatial memory tests.
The study authors suggest that long-term anabolic steroid abuse is associated with changes in brain structure that may impair cognitive function and have other negative psychiatric effects. This result is alarming, and should be of concern to long term anabolic steroid abusers, or those considering the practice. It is important to point out that this study was not setup to establish causation, but rather correlation. We cannot be clear that anabolic steroid use was actually responsible for these changes. Still, this study and the possibility that AAS abuse could have permanent effects on brain function is quite concerning, and definitely warrants further research. We’ll be sure to keep you posted as more information becomes available. Make sure you sign up to our newsletter and keep with us!
Findings from the study (Summary):
- Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) cause psychiatric and cognitive abnormalities.
- We conducted the first systematic brain imaging study of human long-term AAS users.
- AAS users had larger right amygdalas and reduced right amygdala fMRI connectivity.
- AAS users also had dorsal anterior cingulate cortex neurochemical abnormalities.
- AAS use causes brain changes that may underlie psychiatric and cognitive changes.