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How to build a superhuman athlete

How to build a superhuman athlete

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What if performance enhancers were legal? Here's a look at how science could push human performance to new extremes. From steroids to genetic modifications.

Performance enhancements like doping are, of course, illegal. But if these techniques were allowed, how far could the human body go?

The Greek physician Galen passed on knowledge from the ancient games to the Romans, praising the effects of eating herbs, mushrooms, and testicles. Nature takes a look at how science could push human performance to new extremes. From beet juice to steroids to genetic modifications.

  1. For strength and power -- anabolic steroids mimic the way testosterone works in the body, triggering protein synthesis and building more muscle tissue. A course of steroids can translate to a 38% increase in strength in men. These also help accelerate recovery.
  2. The human growth hormone increases levels of the protein insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), spurring muscle growth. Those taking the hormone saw their sprinting capacity increase by 4%.
  3. In endurance sports -- athletes can get dramatic results from blood doping, which aims to increase the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This can be accomplished with blood transfusions.
  4. The hormone erythropoietin (EPO) also increases production of red blood cells. This increased normal humans’ stamina by 34% and allowed them to run 8 kilometers on a treadmill 44 seconds faster than they could before. This also allows for more repetitions in training.
  5. Currently in the pipeline at pharmaceutical companies -- a drug designed to treat muscular dystrophy and other muscle-wasting disorders inhibits the activity of the protein that keeps muscle growth under control.
  6. A group of drugs called HIF stabilizers, which are aimed at treating anemia and kidney disease, regulates a protein that turns on genes for the production of red blood cells.
  7. And there are even cognitive enhancers to improve the ability to think more clearly when you’re fatigued. Current banned substances include a thyroid hormone called liothyronine that decreases sluggishness and a narcolepsy drug called modafinil that increases mental alertness and reaction time.
  8. Of course, there are also legal nutritional supplements (although, most are hype) -- creatine, helps synthesize ATP, the energy carrier molecule, during exercise. Athletes taking it could improve performance by as much as 8%.
  9. And apparently, the nitrate in beetroot juice increases nitric oxide levels in the body, allowing muscles to use oxygen more efficiently. Divers could hold their breath for 11% longer than normal.
  10. And then there’s gene doping -- enhancing performance by adding or modifying genes. For example, experiments aimed at treating muscular dystrophy in the elderly introduced a gene to cause over-expression of IGF1 in mice. The treatment boosted muscle strength of young adult mice by 14%, earning them the nickname ‘mighty mice.’
  11. Other experiments involve turning genes on and off with drugs. GW1516 activates a gene that increases the ratio of ‘slow-twitch’ to ‘fast-twitch’ fiber in muscle. In mice, the drug increased endurance by 70%.
  12. And don’t forget surgery. Artificial joints and ligaments are unlikely to work in elite athletes, but one feasible tweak includes skin grafts to increase webbing between fingers and toes to improve swimming capacity.
  13. Also, there’s nanotechnology. Researchers are already experimenting with blood supplements based on oxygen-carrying nanoparticles for use in emergency situations.
  14. Mechanical prosthetics are already a reality, such as the ‘cheetah-style’ legs we’re seeing in the Olympics – but scientists are split on whether current artificial limbs actually confer an advantage. Perhaps one day the field will produce a bionic limb truly emulates biological limb function.

The International Olympic Committee and fans alike agree that doping isn’t the point of sport. But others argue that enhancers have become so prevalent that the only realistic option is for the sporting authorities to let athletes use what they want, as long as they do it safely. What do you think?

[From Nature News]

Image by sinbad9 via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure