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The Dummy Effect: Athletic Benefit of HGH May All Be in the Mind

By L.K. Regan

Olympic drug testing is going to start having to look for placebos, if the evidence of a new study on human growth hormone (HGH) is to be believed. Athletes willing to dope have used HGH for some time, firmly believing that it improves athletic performance. But studies have failed to demonstrate this effect. The reason may be because the benefit is in the mind of the athlete and not because of the drug itself, according to a new study led by Jennifer Hansen, RN, a nurse researcher at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia. Hansen presented her research this week at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in San Francisco. Studying 64 athletes over eight weeks, Hansen found that merely believing one had taken HGH was sufficient to create measurable improvements in performance.

Hansen's research followed both male and female athletes through a workout program while giving them either HGH or a placebo. The participants, of course, did not know into which category they fell. And yet, there were very clear category breakdowns, both between the HGH and non-HGH groups, and between men and women. At the end of the study, all participants were asked into which category—drug or placebo—they thought they fell. Men were much more likely to believe that they had been given HGH. And, regardless of gender, any participants who believed that they had been given HGH also believed that they had had an improvement in performance.

This is, so far, fairly predictable. But most interestingly, those who wrongly believed they had received HGH—what researchers called "incorrect guessers"—had measurable improvements in actual performance, in addition to merely believing themselves to improve. These subjects were, of course, only taking a placebo. This implies that, while HGH may not itself be able to improve performance, the belief that HGH affects performance may be sufficient to actually impact an athlete.

"Athletes are doping with growth hormone to improve sporting performance despite any evidence it actually improves performance," Hansen said in a statement. "Therefore, we wanted to know if any improvement in performance is due just to the athletes' belief that they are taking an agent that enhances performance, rather than to the agent itself." If athletes truly believe HGH works....then maybe it does.

It's important not to get carried away with this information. Among the tests for athletic performance, only the test of power—a jump height test—yielded measurable gains; tests of endurance, strength and sprinting did not. And, the negatives of HGH remain well-known—including (but not limited to) increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, and abnormal organ growth.