The Dangers of Taking Steroids

Question: What are the dangers of taking steroids?

Gary Wadler: Well, these are- first of all, they’re controlled substances for a reason. They are dangerous drugs. And they’re wonderful drugs when you have a medical need for them. In fact, most of the medical needs have disappeared over the years for anabolic steroids. We use other drugs. What are anabolic steroids? Anabolic steroids are nothing more or less than synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone, and molecules have been modified for a variety of reasons which we can get into, but fundamentally they’re all variations of the testosterone molecule. And, you know, we have a surge of that in puberty and then it levels off. But people have taken anabolic steroids to try to become more than they otherwise would be. So they’re looking for increased strength, improved recovery time, more aggressiveness, assertiveness, more acceleration. It does work. You can’t just take the anabolic steroid and go to sleep and wake up stronger. You do have to work out, you have to put your muscles under stress and resistive exercises, you have to be on a high-protein diet. And there was a big debate for many years. The American Medical Association for years said it did nothing. Well, the athletes knew better. It clearly does work, but it is clearly dangerous. And the side effects can be in the short term, the long term, some are predictable, some are not predictable, some involve the secondary sex characteristics, some have effects on other parts of the body. There’s psychiatric effects. There’s a profound depression when you stop these drugs. We can talk about later as well. And for teenagers, there’s a particular concern in that they will close their growth centers of their long bones so they never achieve their genetically determined height and wind up permanently shorter than they would have been otherwise. And for teenagers very importantly as well as other abusers, severe acne comes as part of the package as well.

Question: What are the dangers for men, women and teenagers?

Gary Wadler:  Well, there are some effects which affect teenagers, men and women alike.  There are those things that affect women, there are those things that affect teenagers and there are those thing that affect males.  In the simplest term, a male becomes feminized.  Why?  Because in the body, testosterone is transformed into the female hormone, estrogen.  And so you’ll see a high-pitched voice, development of breasts, shrinkage of their testicles, change in their hair patterns.  They literally become feminized while they’re trying to get increasingly masculinized.  It’s sort of a strange paradox.  They also get bigger and stronger, but they also get feminized and some of those changes are permanent.  Conversely, a woman who takes anabolic steroids becomes masculinized.  And so she will develop a deep voice, develop facial hair, clitoral enlargement, menstrual irregularities and a large Adam’s apple.  So they very much become in the direction of a male.  And as far as teenagers are concerned, the thing that’s unique to them of course is the growth terms in the fact that they never reach their full genetic potential if they take things long enough.  So each segment of the population has its unique consequences from abusing anabolic steroids.

Question: What are the psychological effects?

Gary Wadler: Well, I can tell you a very concrete example.  About three years ago, I got a phone call one day from Mr. Don Hooten.  Don Hooten, who lived in Texas, had a son who was sixteen years old who pitched for his baseball team in Plano, Texas, was very good.  Coincidentally, he had a cousin who played in the major leagues by the name of Burt Hooten.  At the end of the season, his coach said, “Look, you want to get to the major leagues like your cousin, you just keep working the way you are, but you got to get bigger,” and left it at that.  Well, being in Texas, it wasn’t very hard to get to Mexico.  In Mexico, anabolic steroids are readily available.  And so off went Hooten’s son, Taylor Hooten, and in fact got bigger, stronger, acne, personality change, ‘roid rage, puts his fist through a wall, very significant breakup of his relationship with his girlfriend.  Parents took him around to various experts, didn’t understand what was going on.  Parents finally said, “Look, you have to stop this,” and he did.  One day, he went up to his room, took two belts and hanged himself.  Mr. Hooten called me shortly thereafter and said he just felt compelled to share this horrible story with other parents so they don’t wind up in a similar situation.  And I suggested to him that he establish a not-for-profit foundation, educational foundation which will devote itself to getting this message out.  And that gave rise to the Taylor Hooten Foundation, which I’m Chairman of the Board.  And Mr. Hooten testified, as I did, before the hearings in Congress in baseball and at the Mitchell Report he met with Senator Mitchell, met with the leadership in many aspects of this field, and we’re happy to report that Major League Baseball actually has donated a substantial amount of money to the Taylor Hooten Foundation to do what we call Hoot’s Chalk Talks in which we will run in all thirty major
league stadiums around the United States sessions devoted to steroid abuse prevention and healthy alternatives to abusing steroids.  So it’s a long way of saying that there was a very significant price to pay in this.  And, you know, we heard about the wrestling case of the wrestler who ultimately committed suicide, killed his wife and young child.  These are horrible stories, but they’re not rare and they’re not unpredictable.  And most people don’t recognize or concentrate on the psychiatric aspects of steroid abuse as much as they do on some of the other aspects, particularly what is it doing to baseball records and the like.

Question: How can you tell that someone is taking steroids?

Gary Wadler:  Well, one of the concerns we have for parents is to recognize that a teenager has an increase in their own testosterone.  And another individual the same age group may have a rise because they’re taking testosterone or other anabolic steroids.  So how do you distinguish a kid who is going through a difficult adolescence, took no drugs, but has a lot of acne, is
irritable, change in his relationships with his friends, wants to look good, goes to the gym?  How do you take that individual and contrast it for a parent who suspect that their kid is using drugs and got acne and going to the gym and doing all these things?  They have to A, be aware that it’s a possibility in this day in age.  And it’s a sad thing to say that their adolescents in fact may be using anabolic steroids.  But they also have to recognize they can’t make that assumption.  It may be that their kid already is going through a difficult adolescence.  Imagine how bad it can be when suddenly your parents are questioning you and your behaviors.  So if in doubt, you have to seek a solution with your physician and share that information with your physician and then there are ways to evaluate which of the two is at play here.  But, you know, for the average teenager, it may be not so obvious whether this is natural or whether this is drug-induced.

Recorded on: 04/25/2008


Dr. Wadler explains the health risks pose to both mind and body.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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