Psychological effects of outlawed performance-enhancing sports drug.

As further evidence of performance-enhancing drug use at the Winter Olympics in Turin emerges, French researchers have unveiled the first study to quantify the psychological effects of taking recombinant human erythropoietin (rHuEPO) on endurance athletes. 

The drug has clear benefits for aerobic fitness, but it also gives endurance athletes more positive feelings about themselves, report the researchers. 

There is a risk that these psychological consequences of taking rHuEPO could cause athletes to overtrain, said Philippe Connes, a sports scientist at the University of the French West Indies in Guadeloupe. ’We think that rHuEPO injections are able to cause a dangerous hedonic effect linked to endurance training,’ he said. 

Erythropoietin is a natural hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells. A synthetic recombinant form hit the medical market in the late 1980s to improve the health of patients on dialysis or with anaemia. The use of rHuEPO in sport has been off-limits since 1990, but  there are clearly plenty of athletes willing to flout the ban. This latest research helps to explain why. 

Connes and colleagues recruited a small group of male endurance athletes and divided them into three groups. One received rHuEPO, a second got a placebo injection and the third group got nothing. The athletes completed regular assessments of their self-esteem and physical abilities before, during and after the six-week treatment period.   

The volunteers receiving rHuEPO felt much better about their physical condition and strength than control subjects. This psychological change could occur through the direct action of rHuEPO on other endocrine functions, the authors suggest. ’These results confirm the need to tackle rHuEPO abuse at any time during the training season.’

Such a direct link between rHuEPO treatment and psychological effect was questioned by Roger Waltzman of the St Vincent’s Comprehensive Cancer Center, New York, US. Perhaps subjects felt better about themselves simply because the rHuEPO made them fitter and stronger. ’It’s hard to tell right now,’ said Waltzman. 

But there is some evidence for EPO receptors in the brain, he added, so a direct link cannot be ruled out. ’It’s certainly plausible,’ Waltzman told Chemistry World.

Henry Nicholls