In 1976, I remember watching Olympic athletes from the mysterious German Democratic Republic, a relatively small country shrouded in Iron Curtain secrecy, win medal after medal, particularly in the women’s swimming events. As a child, my summers revolved around swimming: I was obsessed with the sport and the competitions, and in my late teens and early 20s, I seriously considered training for the modern pentathlon. Fortunately, parental wisdom (and financial support) prevailed, but my interest in and love of sports never disappeared, and even as a middle-aged(!) academician, I still swim a couple of miles each week. I intend to keep swimming until I’m in my 90s (or at least until I drop dead), though I’m convinced that attempting a lap of butterfly, at this stage in my life, would undo two years of regular Iyengar yoga practice. Which brings me to the East German swimmers: I remember wondering how those young women developed such muscle mass, especially in their chests, backs, and shoulders. As a teenage girl, the individual medley and middle-distance freestyle races were my best events, and I swam 10+ miles each week to train- yet I never developed anything like such muscle mass, even though I was close in age and height (and very likely genetic background) to many of the female GDR athletes.
A recent Secrets of the Dead program on PBS (available to view online), as well as a review article (Franke and Berendonk, 1997), revealed the ugly conspiracies behind the East German sports prowess of the 1970s and 1980s: young athletes, both male and female, were routinely doped with high levels of anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS), a practice which permanently damaged the bodies and psyches of many, and killed more than a few. The effects of prolonged AAS ingestion and injection, combined with intensive training, were carefully documented by East German physicians and scientists, who in turn were closely monitored by GDR security police, the Stasi. Following German reunification, these documents – dissertations in some cases – became available, and revealed the effects of the systematic androgenic doping both on sports performance, and on the organ systems of the young athletes.
Katharina Bullin, a former GDR volleyball player, as she appears in the 2005 documentary, Und ich dachte ich wär’ die Größte (And I thought I was the greatest)
Franke and Berendonk documented the “global experiment in secrecy” carried out at the specialized sports institutes and clubs in the GDR, and the complicity of government officials, trainers, and physicians as they dosed athletes with the AAS Oral-Turinabol, described as “vitamin pills”. For female athletes especially, the performance improvements achieved with the androgenic doping program were undeniable, but they came at a cost, in the form of horrific side effects. For both male and female athletes, liver enlargement (hepatomegaly) and damage were serious possibilities, muscle tightness or cramps were common, and changes in libido were reported. Female athletes, especially those whose hormonal doping began early in adolescence, experienced excessive body hair growth (hirsutism), deepening of the voice (due to changes in larynx structure), loss of menstrual cycle (amenorrhea), body weight increase, gynecological abnormalities (e.g. ovarian cysts, infertility), increased aggression, and nymphomania.
A recent paper by Cunningham and colleagues (2007) describes AAS-induced changes in two regions of the rat brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, known to mediate aggression and sexual behavior. The amygdala consists of several collections of neurons (nuclei), and removal of this structure results in loss of rage or fear responses to various stimuli. Bilateral damage to the amygdala in humans leads to Klüver-Bucy syndrome, characterized not only by docility, but also by bizarrely hypersexual behavior, and loss of the ability to visually recognize objects. The amygdala, along with the hippocampus and several other brain structures, is part of the limbic system, which controls memory formation, sexual behavior, and emotional responses. There is considerable evidence that both androgen and estrogen hormones can dramatically alter the shape and spine density of dendrites, which are neuronal processes that receive synaptic contacts from other neurons. Cunningham and colleagues exposed puberty-aged male rats to high doses of the anabolic steroid testosterone, a treatment known to increase irritability and aggression, and examined spine densities on neurons in the amygdala and hippocampus. Crystals of the fluorescent, lipophilic carbocyanine dye, DiI, were used to label and visualize dendrites and spines, and as predicted, excess testosterone increased spine density in the amygdala and in the dorsal hippocampus. Although spine densities returned to normal in the amygdala after AAS withdrawal, hippocampal neurons retained their extra dendritic spines. The investigators speculated that the AAS-induced changes in neuron structure may contribute to the behavioral consequences associated with androgenic steroid abuse.
Franke, W.W., and Berendonk, B. (1997) Hormonal doping and androgenization of athletes: a secret program of the German Democratic Republic government. Clinical Chemistry 43, 1262-1279.
CUNNINGHAM, R., CLAIBORNE, B., MCGINNIS, M. (2007). Pubertal exposure to anabolic androgenic steroids increases spine densities on neurons in the limbic system of male rats. Neuroscience DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2007.09.038