Starting last fall, capitalizing on the interest raised by the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, NIDA intensified its campaign to warn young people that steroid abuse is a dangerous way to become faster, stronger, and bigger.
Boys and girls who abuse these drugs before reaching their full natural height may prematurely halt bone growth, resulting in permanently shorter stature. Boys and men who abuse steroids risk shrinkage of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, development of breasts, and an increased risk for prostate cancer. Girls and women are subject to menstrual abnormalities, voice deepening, breast shrinkage, male-pattern baldness, and an increase in sex drive, acne, body hair, and clitoris size. Some of these adverse effects—including breast enlargement in men, menstrual abnormalities in women, and reduced height in both sexes—may be permanent. For both sexes, steroid abuse increases the risk of liver and heart disease, stroke, aggression, and depression. Users of injectable steroids may acquire hepatitis, HIV, and other infections if they use contaminated needles.
In recent animal studies, NIDA-supported researchers tested the effects of chronic exposure to anabolic (muscle-building) and androgenic (masculinizing) steroids on brain circuits that underlie aggression and reproductive behaviors. They found that in mice, a regimen corresponding to chronic human abuse of these drugs reduced levels of the receptor for the neurochemical GABA. Adolescent female mice were particularly sensitive to the effects of the steroid on GABA, which is critical to the display of female sexual behaviors and is involved in the regulation of hormone release and ovarian maturation.
The need to educate young people about the serious health risks associated with steroids remains urgent. Among American teens, such abuse declined over the past decade, but that encouraging trend shows signs of weakening, especially among younger boys and girls. In 2005, according to the annual NIDA-funded Monitoring the Future (MTF) Survey, the number of high school seniors reporting steroid abuse dropped significantly, to 1.5 percent, from peak levels of about 2.5 percent just a year before. The rates were unchanged, however, among 10th graders (1.3 percent) and 8th graders (1.1 percent).
NIDA has responded by updating our Research Report on Steroids to provide the public with the newest information about steroids and their abuse, a Spanish version is also available. "Game Plan," a public service announcement that has aired more than 8,000 times in 75 television markets across the United States, reminds young athletes that "quick fixes" can be dangerously deceptive and that cheating is damaging in the long run. NIDA will continue to conduct and publicize research on steroids, and to drive home the point that, ultimately, steroid abuse is a losing strategy.