The Use Of Performance-Enhancing Drugs By Astronauts

Doping is the administration of drugs to athletes to inhibit or boost athletic performance. Performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), otherwise known as banned substances, are illegally ingested/injected into athlete’s systems to provide them with an unfair advantage in their respective sport. While these drugs are banned from all major sporting competitions, many athletes have been linked to, or have been found guilty of using these banned substances during their careers. The widespread usage of PEDs brings up the discussion of ethics, as it is classified as cheating, and looked upon as immorally wrong by fellow athletes, media, and fans alike. With all that is negatively said about PEDs, they could potentially have a very positive and beneficial effect on astronauts during space travel. Traveling into space has a very negative effect on the human body, in both the short-term and long-term after returning back to Earth. Adapting to space is impossible, as there are way too many factors that make the ability to acclimate the human body unattainable. The body undergoes several different changes, including but not limited to, cardiovascular muscles becoming significantly weaker, loss of bone and muscle mass, etc., along with chemical changes that occur. The most serious of changes are modifications to the immune system, depletion of red blood cell count and damage to eyesight. Astronauts also experience psychological challenges stemming from issues due to time in space. With all this being said, what if doctors started experimenting with PEDs in astronauts while they traveled off of Earth. The end goal of this paper is to analyze different types of PEDs and how they can provide benefits to help the human body stay at, or near, equilibrium, and remove some of the rigorous strains their bodies face. Types of Doping There are many different forms of PEDs/methods of doping. The most common of which are: Erythropoietin (EPO), Continuous Erythropoiesis Receptor Activator (CERA), anabolic steroids, Human Growth Hormones (hGH), diuretics, synthetic oxygen carriers, blood doping, insulin, and gene doping. EPO is a naturally produced peptide hormone (hormones consisting of two or more amino acids) released from the kidneys that stimulates red blood cell production from bone marrow. Athletes inject themselves with EPOs to boost aerobic capacity, which in turn allows for better respiration during activity due to an increase in concentration of red blood cells. CERA is a more advanced form of EPO, meaning that its purpose is to raise the capacity at which oxygen is carried.

The difference between CERA and EPO is that CERA has a longer half-life, and in turn requires less injections. Anabolic steroids are synthetic, or human-made, variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. These drugs allow for increased muscle growth and mass, along with reduced body fat and faster recovery from injury. hGH is naturally produced in the anterior pituitary gland and is injected to stimulate the liver to secrete IGF-1. (Other forms of IGF stimulate other tissues, but IGF-1 stimulates the liver) IGF-1, or insulin like growth factor, allows for increased production of cartilage cells, which introduces bone, muscle, and organ growth. Diuretics are different from the other PEDs, as they are used as a cover to help avoid detection of other substances in drug tests, along with helping athletes with weight loss. Synthetic oxygen carriers are as the name suggests, unnatural forms of purified proteins that hold more oxygen than the body can normally hold. Blood doping is one of, if not the most popular forms of PED use. It too increases red blood cell mass; increasing stamina and endurance, as well as diminishing lactic acid build up. EPO and synthetic oxygen carriers are both categorized as being methods of blood doping, along with blood transfusions. One type of blood transfusion called autologous blood doping is taking one’s own blood and storing it for future use. The second type, known as homologous blood doping, is taking blood from a different person with the same blood type and transfusing it into the athlete’s system. Insulin is a naturally produced hormone that keeps many of our metabolic functions at homeostasis, while providing cells with energy. Inputting higher levels of insulin into the body boosts how much can be held in muscles and allows for the growth of muscle glycogen. Lastly, gene doping is a newer form of doping that still has very little information known about it. With advancements continue to be made in technology and medicine, gene doping could very soon be widely used by athletes and others in the near future. Gene doping would change the chemical makeup of cells, allowing for increased muscle production and growth, red blood cell production, oxygen dispersal, pain perception and faster recovery time. Examples of PED usage Doping has been around since the beginning of sports in the ancient times, traced all the way back to chariot racing in the Ancient Olympic Games and in Ancient Rome. As time has progressed and technology has advanced, these drugs have become more efficient; henceforth, allowing some athletes to bask in glory due to their achievements/awards won while using them. A prominent case of this is of Barry Bonds, considered to be one of the greatest baseball players of all-time. Bonds broke several records during his time in the Major League of Baseball, including the career home run record at 762. However, he has been heavily linked with the use of steroids throughout his career, and has yet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Another infamous case is that of Lance Armstrong, a cyclist who won SEVEN consecutive Tour de France races. The Tour de France is considered to be the most difficult and grueling bicycle races in the world, and provides the winner with immense amounts of press and rewards, including a purse of nearly 2.5 million euros.

Shortly after winning his seventh, it was uncovered that Armstrong had used different forms of doping during his win spree (consistently found to be blood doping among others), and was subsequently stripped of his titles and banned from all future competitions. While there are dozens of other athletes who have used these substances, Barry Bonds and Lance Armstrong provide the best example of how effective the drugs are, and the amount of success and accolades that come with it. Effects of Spaceflight on the Human Body The first human was sent to space in 1961. In the fifty eight years that have passed since the first launch, scientists have been able to get a much better understanding of the dangers astronauts face when leaving Earth. Aside from the possibility of immediate death due to the smallest/simplest of mishaps, astronauts face a multitude of issues when they return from space. Expeditions into space normally last approximately six months, in which changes to the body can occur and exacerbate to unfixable levels. The three most concerning effects astronauts have to worry about while in space are radiation, gravity (weightlessness), and isolation. Radiation, as we know, is very dangerous and can be lethal if exposed to elevated levels. Humans on Earth are protected from the radiation found in space due to the Earth’s atmosphere and ozone layer. Space does not have this same protective layer for the astronauts; resulting in them being exposed directly to the damaging rays from the Sun. While the spacesuits are designed to obstruct how much radiation can actually come in contact with the astronauts, they still are found to have much higher levels of radiation in their system. These same levels make astronauts more susceptible to developing cancer, alzheimers, tumors, amongst other diseases. They also experience damage to their central nervous system, which in turn causes cognitive and motor function to dwindle years removed from space travel. The second major problem astronauts encounter is the lack of gravity present away from Earth. Short term exposure to weightlessness are that bone density diminishes at a rate of about one percent per month, whereas compared to elderly people on Earth, they lose the same percentage over the span of a year. Also, transitioning from Earth’s gravitational field to the fields found in space causes orientation, coordination, balance and locomotion issues for astronauts. Long term exposure showed loss of bone and muscle mass, reduced aerobic capacity, decrease in productivity, and slowing of the cardiovascular system. Fluid distribution gets affected as well, causing balance issues and blurred vision. The third and final major concern is isolation/psychological issues. Astronauts go through tough bouts of mental health while in space, as they live in tight quarters for months on end with the same people, and take on arduous tasks with immense pressure on them.

Astronauts are more than likely to have left family at home, which also rattles their psyche. NASA Twin Study Experiment In 2015, NASA conducted an experiment that gave the best look into what changes the body undergoes while in space. Mark and Scott Kelly were brought in by NASA to gather data, due to the fact identical twins share 100 percent of their genetic makeup. Scott was sent into space for a year-long mission, while Mark stayed on Earth. When Scott returned, several tests were taken on both twins to try and prove the scientists hypotheses. Some of Scott’s biological makeup returned to their pre-flight levels quickly after landing, while others took days to months to return to proper homeostasis. Scott’s cognitive performance while in space did not decrease at a rate that was expected, though once adjusted back to Earth, there was a severe diminishing of his speed and accuracy. The most glaring observation from this experiment was the change in Scott’s chemical makeup compared to Mark’s. As previously stated, identical twins share one hundred percent genetic makeup, but after testing Scott post spaceflight, it was found that seven percent of his makeup had been altered and could cause long term issues to his “immune system, DNA repair, bone formation networks, hypoxia, and hypercapnia.” Astronauts Use of PEDs With all that has been said, it is clear that astronauts need a new alternative to help them combat the harsh conditions of space. The human body cannot adjust to space and the dangers it brings along, and most likely will never get to that point. What can happen is the use of banned pharmaceuticals to help buffer and counteract the strains they encounter while away from Earth. Blood doping (EPO and CERA) can be used to reverse the decrease of red blood cells the body normally goes through while in space, allowing for better respiration and aerobic capacity. Anabolic steroids can be used to fight muscle atrophy, and allow the muscle to keep growing despite the weightlessness. IGF-1 would help keep astronauts bones strong and prevent one percent loss in density of the bone, while insulin would allow for cells to maintain proper function, sending out energy along with keeping necessary functions at homeostasis. Lastly, and all though this is newer and less tested, gene doping could provide the most effective and efficient way to keep astronauts from undergoing drastic changes to their bodies, as scientists would be able to configure certain genes to “acclimate” to space.

The one negative about the use of PEDs by astronauts is the short-term and long-term effects PEDs have on the body. Side effects in drugs like hGH can cause “diabetes in prone individuals, worsening of heart diseases, muscle, joint and bone pain, hypertension and cardiac deficiency, abnormal growth of organs and accelerated osteoarthritis.” Anabolic steroids can cause high blood pressure, acne, abnormalities in liver function, alterations in the menstrual cycle, decline in sperm production and impotence in men, kidney failure and heart disease. EPOs/CERA thickens blood in athletes which typically leads to heart disease, stroke and other debilitating issues to the cardiovascular system. Conclusion In closing, use of performance enhancing drugs by astronauts could be a very beneficial and necessary step to making human space travel safer. Technology is increasing rapidly, and talks of a spaceflight to “the Red Planet” (Mars) are only getting more traction by the day. PEDs are heavily frowned upon by many, and for good reason. They give unfair competitive advantages to players and is casted as being immoral and cheating. Why can’t these astronauts receive these same “competitive advantages?” While there are many questions left to be answered, “is there a way to eliminate these side effects by scientists so that they can be used without these dangerous risks on the astronauts health?” or “Is it morally right/ethical to give banned substances to astronauts?,” we are on the right side of history and what the near future holds for us, is endless.

01 February 2021
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