Cognitive deficits in long-term anabolic-androgenic steroid users

Drug Alcohol Depend. 2013 Jun 1;130(1-3):208-14. doi: 10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2012.11.008. Epub 2012 Dec 14.


Background: Millions of individuals worldwide have used anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS) to gain muscle or improve athletic performance. Recently, in vitro investigations have suggested that supraphysiologic AAS doses cause apoptosis of neuronal cells. These findings raise the possibility, apparently still untested, that humans using high-dose AAS might eventually develop cognitive deficits.

Methods: We administered five cognitive tests from the computerized CANTAB battery (Pattern Recognition Memory, Verbal Recognition Memory, Paired Associates Learning, Choice Reaction Time, and Rapid Visual Information Processing) to 31 male AAS users and 13 non-AAS-using weightlifters age 29-55, recruited and studied in May 2012 in Middlesbrough, UK. Testers were blinded to participants' AAS status and other historical data.

Results: Long-term AAS users showed no significant differences from nonusers on measures of response speed, sustained attention, and verbal memory. On visuospatial memory, however, AAS users performed significantly more poorly than nonusers, and within the user group, visuospatial performance showed a significant negative correlation with total lifetime AAS dose. These were large effects: on Pattern Recognition Memory, long-term AAS users underperformed nonusers by almost one standard deviation, based on normative population scores (adjusted mean difference in z-scores=0.89; p=0.036), and performance on this test declined markedly with increasing lifetime AAS dose (adjusted change in z-score=-0.13 per 100g of lifetime AAS dose; p=0.002). These results remained stable in sensitivity analyses addressing potential confounding factors.

Conclusions: These preliminary findings raise the ominous possibility that long-term high-dose AAS exposure may cause cognitive deficits, notably in visuospatial memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anabolic Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Anabolic Agents / adverse effects
  • Androgens / administration & dosage*
  • Androgens / adverse effects
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Attention / physiology
  • Cognition Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology
  • Middle Aged
  • Photic Stimulation / methods*
  • Reaction Time / drug effects
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Weight Lifting / physiology
  • Weight Lifting / psychology


  • Anabolic Agents
  • Androgens