Is the Stereotype Real?
The general public usually thinks of steroid users as monosyllabic knuckleheads. They're handy friends to have around when you need help moving your sofa, but not the guys you want on your team during trivia night at your favorite bar.
Well, I know plenty of chemically augmented folks who defy this stereotype, but science has been hinting for years that anabolic-androgenic steroid use CAN negatively affect the brain.
One previous study found that heavy steroid users reported more memory problems and issues with "executive functioning" – the mental processes that help you to pay attention, plan and execute tasks, and coordinate info. But that was a study using online surveys, which can be iffy.
Now, the guys in lab coats have stepped up their game and studied this more closely. What they found is alarming.
The New Study
Researchers rounded up 85 previous and current steroid-using men along with 64 non-steroid users to act as controls. They shoved them all into an MRI machine, scanned their brains, and gave them a comprehensive neuropsychological battery of tests.
Along with measuring the regional cortical thickness and arealization of their brains, the scientists studied the participants' fine motor speed, speed of processing, learning ability, working memory, executive functioning, and problem solving skills.
The steroid users were indeed monosyllabic knuckleheads.
Okay, not quite. But they did perform worse in several cognitive domains, like speed of processing, working memory, and problem solving. Generally, their cerebral cortexes weren't as thick. (Thickness in this area of the brain has been associated with intelligence in other studies.)
Also, the longer the person had been using steroids, the worse his memory seemed to be. Short-term users still had issues, but they faired better than long-term users.
Summary: Prolonged use of high-dose anabolic steroids does seem to lead to poor brain health and handicapped cognition.
How to Use This Info
A lot of people think that steroids are dangerous, society-wrecking drugs on par with heroin and meth. Those people are wrong.
But so are the folks who say that steroids, when "used wisely," are perfectly safe. They're not, at least when it comes to bodybuilding dosages used for prolonged periods. Your heart doesn't like it and, apparently, neither does your brain.
So cue the theme music from those "The More You Know" public service announcements. If you're going to use, at least be aware of the drawbacks. And try to remember them, ya knucklehead.
- Bjornebekk, A., Westlye, L. T., Walhovd, K. B., Jørstad, M. L., Sundseth, & Fjell, A. M. (2019). Cognitive performance and structural brain correlates in long-term anabolic-androgenic steroid exposed and nonexposed weightlifters. Neuropsychology, 33(4), 547–559.