There seems to be something to every cliché.
But it’s not really fair that the mental abilities of those contemporaries who inflate their biceps in the gym are assumed to be inversely proportional to the muscle mass.
After all, research suggests that physical activity in general and strength training in particular also spur the grey cells on to peak performance.
However, researchers at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne have now found a possible explanation for the contradiction between the generally perceived mental “underexposure” on the one hand and the expected positive effect of a lot of weight training on intelligence on the other.
It is possible that the high consumption of anabolic steroids by recreational athletes will cancel out the positive effects of sport on the brain.
Worse memory values
This conclusion is obvious if one looks at the results of a survey of around 100 young men aged from the beginning to mid-20 from fitness studios.
Half stated that they regularly consume anabolic-androgenic steroids, the others rejected this (The Open Psychiatry Journal, 2015, 9, 1-6).
Now the researchers around Thomas M. Heffernan looked at how often the young men struggled with cognitive problems.
However, they did not subject their subjects to extensive cognitive tests – and this is a major disadvantage of their study – but rather relied on various questionnaires.
For example, the Executive Function Questionnaire asks: “Do you often lose the thread of thought, do you often lose your concept?” or “Do you have difficulty completing something that you have started?
The respondents can then answer on a scale from 1 (no problem) to 4 (severe problems).
With similar questionnaires, Heffernan and his colleagues evaluated problems with prospective memory (“Do you plan to do something in a few minutes, but then forget it?”) and retrospective memory (“Do you always tell the same story to the same people?”).
The result was surprising:
Anabolic drug users showed almost 40 percent lower scores in the prospective memory questionnaire than their cronies without steroids, 32 percent lower scores in the executive function questionnaire and 28 percent lower scores in the retrospective memory questionnaire.
In all three cognitive areas, the anabolic recreational surgeons had significantly more problems than bodybuilders and fitness fans without steroidal support.
“Our results suggest that long-term use of anabolic-androgenic steroids significantly affects memory,” write Heffernan and colleagues.
So do anabolic steroids really make the muscle bundles stupid?
What is cause, what effect?
But here, too, it is important to be fair, because the connection is not that clear.
Although British psychologists and drug researchers have tried to exclude other possible cognitive impairing factors such as alcohol consumption or bad mood as an explanation, it is not possible to determine cause and effect with such a cross-sectional study.
It may well be that more modest minds tend to use anabolic steroids because they do not understand the risks involved or quickly forget them because of their cognitive deficits.
Since many men in fitness studios rely on anabolic performance enhancers, it would indeed be interesting to know whether they damage the brain.
However, this requires long-term cohort studies, and researchers should also objectively measure cognitive function and not just collect subjective data.