Anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS), a synthetic version of the male sex hormone testosterone, are sometimes used as a medical treatment for hormone imbalance. But the vast majority of AAS is used to improve athletic performance or build muscle, because it is paired with strength training.
The use of AAS increases muscle mass and strength, and its use is known to have many side effects, from acne to heart problems to increased aggression. New research now suggests that AAS can also have detrimental effects on the brain, causing it to age prematurely.
The report appears in Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging, published by Elsevier.
The use of anabolic steroids is associated with a number of medical and psychological side effects. However, since anabolic steroids have only been in the public domain for about 35 years, we are still at an early stage of assessing the full range of effects after prolonged use. The least studied effects are those related to the brain. “
Astrid Bjørnebekk, PhD, Department of Mental Health and Addiction, University Hospital of Oslo
Steroid hormones easily enter the brain, and sex hormone receptors are found throughout the brain. Because AAS is administered in much higher doses than those found naturally in the body, they could have a detrimental effect on the brain, especially over a longer period of use. Previous studies have shown that AAS users had poorer results on cognitive tests than non-users.
Dr. Bjørnebekk and colleagues performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain of 130 male weightlifters with a history of prolonged use of AAS and 99 weightlifters who had never used AAS. Using data collected from nearly 2,000 healthy men aged 18 to 92 years.
The researchers used machine learning to determine the predicted age of the brains of each of their participants, and then determined the age gap in the brain: the difference between the chronological age of each of the participants and their predicted brain age.
Advanced brain age is associated with impaired cognitive performance and an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Not surprisingly, AAS users had a larger age gap in the brain compared to non-users. Those who depend on AAS or have a longer history of use have shown accelerated brain aging. The researchers explained the use of other substances and depression in men, which did not explain the difference between the groups.
“This important study shows in a large sample of benefits associated with deviant brain aging, with a potential impact on quality of life in old age. The findings may be directly beneficial to health professionals and may potentially have preventive implications, where brain effects are also included in risk assessment for young men who are wondering whether to use anabolic steroids “, added Dr. Bjørnebekk.
Cameron Carter, Ph.D. Med., Editor of the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, told the study: “The results of this brain imaging study should be worrying for athletes who use anabolic steroids to improve performance and suggest that adverse effects on behavior and cognition previously have been shown to be associated with long-term use are the result of effects on the brain in the form of accelerated brain aging. “
Bjørnebekk, A., and others. (2021) Long-term use of anabolic androgenic steroids has been associated with deviant brain aging. Biological psychiatry: cognitive neuroscience and neuroimaging. doi.org/10.1016/j.bpsc.2021.01.001.