"Most people use anabolic steroids to enhance their physical performance, but they deny that steroids may be addictive," noted lead researcher Ruth Wood, PhD, Professor of Cell and Neurobiology at USC. "Unlike other commonly abused drugs, the primary motivation for steroid users is not to get high, but rather to achieve enhanced athletic performance and increased muscle mass. The complex motivation for steroid use makes it difficult to determine the addictive properties of anabolic steroids in humans. Our goal was to create an experimental model of addiction where athletic performance and other reinforcing effects are irrelevant."
Wood's study is among the first to examine the potential for anabolic steroid addiction. The research was modeled after well-established methods used to study highly addictive drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. Hamsters were implanted with small cannulas for self-administration of commonly abused steroids into their brains. The animals then spent four hours per day in a chamber with access to two delivery mechanisms. When the hamster operated the active mechanism, he received 1 microgram of testosterone, or one of several commonly abused steroids: nandrolone, drostanolone, stanozolol, or oxymetholone. The inactive mechanism produced no response. A computer recorded the number of times each animal used the active and inactive delivery mechanisms. Overall, the animals showed a marked preference for testosterone, nandrolone or drostanolone, engaging the active delivery mechanism twice as often as the control. However, not all steroids are rewarding: hamsters did not voluntarily inject the weak steroids stanozolol or oxymetholone. By isolating the animals, researchers were able to remove the possibility that the hamster's decision to take the drugs would be affected by any social or behavioral factors
"Cleary the animals perceive the steroids to be rewarding," said Wood. "This preference demonstrates the drugs' potential for addiction." The researcher noted that the specific pattern of abuse demonstrated by hamsters suggests that a commonly held belief about steroids is true: rather than an acute high like that experienced by a cocaine or heroine user, steroid abusers experience a chronic, long-term sense of well-being. "In other words," Wood explained, "steroid users feel better on the drugs than they do off of them."
"The findings demonstrate that anabolic steroids do have the potential to be addictive," Wood concluded. "Coaches and athletes need to be aware of this potential, and add it to the list of dangers associated with using anabolic steroids."
Wood also noted that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals should be aware of the finding, as men who use anabolic steroids to change their appearance may have a serious body image disorder (Body Dysmorphic Disorder) and present for psychiatric treatment.
Androgenic-anabolic steroids are among a class of drugs that are commonly abused by athletes and body-builders. The drugs were banned from Olympic competition in 1975 and classified as controlled substances in 1991. According to the 2002 Monitoring the Future Study conducted by the University of Michigan, the lifetime incidence of steroid use among high school seniors (4.0%) was comparable to that for crack cocaine (3.8%) or heroin (1.7%).
ACNP is holding its Annual Meeting December 11-15, 2005, in Waikoloa, Hawaii.
ACNP, founded in 1961, is a professional organization of more than 700 leading scientists, including three Nobel Laureates. The mission of ACNP is to further research and education in neuropsychopharmacology and related fields in the following ways: promoting the interaction of a broad range of scientific disciplines of brain and behavior in order to advance the understanding of prevention and treatment of disease of the nervous system including psychiatric, neurological, behavioral and addictive disorders; encouraging scientists to enter research careers in fields related to these disorders and their treatment; and ensuring the dissemination of relevant scientific advances. A non-profit organization, ACNP receives revenues from a variety of sources including membership dues, publication sales, registration fees, and pharmaceutical industry grants.