The red-blood-cell-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which is used clinically to treat anemia and illegally by athletes to boost endurance, may also improve brainpower. According to research published in the journal BMC Biology, mice treated with the drug performed better in certain learning and memory tests than did control animals.
EPO is popular among dopers because it increases blood oxygenation, mimicking the effect of blood doping. But it also targets the nervous system, improving survival of brain cells. The drug is currently in clinical trials for traumatic brain injury and stroke. (A previous post describes how EPO blocks brain swelling after trauma.)
The new research looks at how the drug affects a healthy brain. According to a press release issued by the journal,
[Hannelore] Ehrenreich [from the Max Planck Institute of Experimental Medicine, in Göttingen, Germany] and her colleagues tested the effects of erythropoietin on the ability of the mice to learn how to exploit an experimental set-up to receive sugared water. Over a series of learning stages, the mice were trained to get their treat by poking their noses into holes lit by LEDs, rather than into unlit holes, within a time limit. The mice that had been treated with recombinant human erythropoietin were significantly more likely to master the task than those that had not. According to Ehrenreich, “Treated mice showed superior performance in associative, operant and discriminant learning as well as in the initial training phases. Moreover, erythropoietin-treated mice demonstrated better task adaptation and higher performance stability.”
The researchers conclude, “Further untangling of molecular mechanisms of erythropoietin action on higher cognitive functions may ultimately open new avenues for prevention strategies and therapeutic interventions in neuropsychiatric diseases.”