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SCU study reveals serious side effects of performance enhancing drugs


11 August 2004
As the countdown continues to the Athens Olympics, a new study by a team of Southern Cross University (SCU) scientists has revealed serious new side effects of performance enhancing drugs.

The SCU study, led by Dr Robert Weatherby, has revealed that the use of anabolic steroids may significantly increase susceptibility to viral infections and cancers and raises questions about the dangers of long-term use of the banned substances.

The study, completed over six weeks under strict ethical and health controls, was carried out in conjunction with Mentorn, Channel 4 (UK) and New Scientist. The experiment formed part of the documentary “High Performance”, which screens on Foxtel tonight (Wednesday, August 11).

Dr Weatherby said the study revealed that using anabolic steroids, even at doses 50 times less than those commonly used by steroid abusers, significantly increased susceptibility to viral infections and cancers by weakening a vital part of the body’s immune system.

The researchers also found that steroids could cause a change in the users’ psychology, reducing their empathy for other people, and making them less sensitive to the effect of their actions on others. Unlike other drugs, which merely alter mood for a short time, this new evidence indicates steroids may cause a change to human personality, which is normally stable throughout life – a result that has potential implications for those convicted of criminal offences related to so called “roid rage”.

“Athletes have used these drugs for a long time, hoping to improve their performance, but now for the first time we’ve been able to show that androgenic anabolic steroids have a seriously detrimental effect on a specific part of the human body’s immune system,” Dr Weatherby said.

“Even at the doses we gave – 3.5 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight per week – 50 times less than those commonly used by athletes and bodybuilders, and for a period of only six weeks - the body’s ability to defend itself against viruses and cancers is likely to be significantly lessened.

“Anyone taking steroids over a long period of time - to improve their athletic performance in the short term - is potentially seriously endangering their health.”

The study involved a group of 24 multi-national volunteers who were based at a training camp in NSW. The volunteers were divided into two groups. One group was injected with an anabolic steroid (testosterone enanthate) and the second group injected with a placebo. The test was “double blind” so that neither the volunteers nor the scientists knew who was given what. The volunteers were then put through a training regime under the supervision of an Olympic standard coach.

Dr Weatherby said the study found that the effectiveness of NK (natural killer) cells, a type of white blood cell crucial to the body’s immune system, was reduced by 20% in those administered with the testosterone. This means that for the first time, a test on humans has linked androgenic anabolic steroids with a reduction in the NK cells’ ability to destroy diseased body cells – such as those infected with a virus or tumour. This reduction comes on top of the already reduced immune system that many athletes have through stressing their bodies with intensive training. It is believed that the reduction in NK Cell activity would be even greater at the higher level of steroids normally taken by bodybuilders and sports people.

The scientists also discovered significant psychological changes in those administered with testosterone, including effects on personality. These included a reduction in a psychological factor called sensitivity. This finding is significant because very few drugs cause an actual change to the personality, rather than just heightening mood swings after which the user returns to normal. The changes to personality result in a less empathetic, more compliant person who would take less responsibility for their actions. This may have legal implications, as for the first time, people using steroids who are charged with a criminal offence may be able to argue a defence of diminished responsibility.

Dr Weatherby said the results of the study demonstrated the need for further studies into the side-effects of performance enhancing drugs and SCU was considering avenues for ongoing research.

The SCU team of scientists was led by Dr Weatherby and included Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Sonya Marshall-Gradisnik, Associate Lecturer Ms Rosanne Coutts, Senior Lecturer Mr Rudi Meir and Mr Shane Rogerson. Other SCU academics and researchers took part in the project.

Media contact: Brigid Veale, SCU Media Liaison, 66593006 or m. 0439 680 748.