A new research has found that aggressive behaviour associated with teenage and young adulthood could be due to anabolic steroids. The effect may be only temporary , but may have long-term consequences on the developing brain. The results of this study can be seen in the Behavioral Neuroscience journal, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).
There has been an increasing concern among Neuroscientists regarding abuse of anabolic androgenic steroids (AASs) by adolescents. More than 0.5 million eighth and tenth grade students are estimated to use anabolic steroids every year, according to estimates by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Long-term abuse can lead to hallucinations, mood swings, paranoia, liver damage, hypertension, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and even cancer. Tendency to yield to habit formation and depression are common manifestations of withdrawal symptoms.
In order to analyze the effects of anabolic steroids, researchers injected the compound into adolescent hamsters and studied the behavioral changes. Mild mannered hamsters were found to defend their territory through aggression in the form of play fighting, wrestling and nibbling, learnt during puberty.
Injection of steroids in an oil suspension was found to precipitate an extreme aggressive response. The aggression was 10 times greater than that showed by control group hamsters. Furthermore, the effect of drug-induced aggression was found to last for approximately 2 weeks after withdrawal. The experimental group hamsters had their normal behaviour restored following 3 weeks of withdrawal.
Autopsy examination of the hamsters found a correlation between drug-induced brain changes and outward aggressiveness. The effect could be attributed to increased secretion of vasopressin, a neurotransmitter secreted by anterior hypothalamus. Previous studies have established the ability of vasopressin to stimulate the anterior hypothalamus. The study is however, the first to establish a definitive link between steroids, aggression and brain changes.
The similarity of human and rodent nervous systems allows the extrapolation of the observed results to human beings as well. Although reversible, the researchers state that the effect of anabolic steroids could last long for creation of significant behavioral problems in adults as well. The abuse could lead to adolescents being dangerous to their self or others. They further believe that presence of anabolic steroids during a critical period of brain development can change the right track, making it less flexible.
'If you hit the right areas of the brain at the right time, you make permanent changes. It's our hope that people considering the use of these drugs weigh the long-term health risks and the serious potential for aggression and violence. Muscle mass and medals aren't worth the risk of hurting someone or landing in jail. Linking aggression to fluctuations in vasopressin makes it an important neurotransmitter to target for pharmacotherapy,' concluded the researchers.
Let us hope that such studies would eventually pave way for the development of new treatment strategies for aggressive behaviour in teens.