Older adults who can handle high-EPO blood will reap a big performance boost, study finds

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, Dutch researchers showed that giving athletes an injection of the blood plasma from the blood of older athletes at high levels appears to raise their performance while not significantly altering their immune system.

The study, published in the January issue of the journal Brain and Behavior, aims to answer the question of whether certain types of blood affect athletic performance, and to find out whether higher amounts of oxygen in the blood has a direct impact on performance.

Previous studies have shown that short bursts of oxygen can increase overall metabolic rate and heighten cognitive function while also keeping the heart pumping harder, said co-author Karl-Heinzelle Coumnecht, a neuroscientist at the Academic Medical Center in Amsterdam. “But when we look at the type of athlete, there is evidence that athletes can control their body temperature much better than you and I,” Coumnecht said. “The more oxygen you have, the more you can do.”

Many athletes also need certain proteins in their blood, such as EPO, to regulate their levels of red blood cells, he said. “EPO then goes into the oxygen flowing into the bloodstream, which makes athletes stronger,” Coumnecht said. “The other proteins increase cardiorespiratory fitness and brain power.” EPO is already prohibited in pro-wrestling and mixed martial arts, so it wasn’t surprising that in the past 10 years researchers have discovered cardiovascular advantages to EPO.

Previous tests of EPO showed it could boost a person’s aerobic capacity and improve their ability to drive a car, he said. The effect was more pronounced in athletes older than 60 than in others, he said.

“The hope is that perhaps injecting athlete’s blood, including EPO, into younger athletes could improve their performance even without the impairment that EPO-adrenergic therapies can cause,” Coumnecht said.

In the study, researchers gave four different types of blood to 106 older and 70-year-old volunteers, including senior citizens who have been active for several decades and those who are no longer on active careers. The men received each blood type separately and while cycling on a bike bike. Subjects also answered questions about their mood, memory and overall health.

Results showed that those receiving EPO had a slight boost in brain performance. Those who were older and had higher EPO levels had higher ratings for cognitive ability, and those using the blood type EPO that had the most heart activity had greater increases in the graying of gray matter, or gray matter fibers in the brain. Overall, researchers said the blood group EPO had the most influence on performance.

Although the results were small, Coumnecht says they show that EPO is a potential modulator of our system’s ability to increase blood flow to the brain.

“We know that EPO makes us more fit,” he said. “That can be taken to the next step: How can this assistance to the brain be maintained over time?”

The study’s findings have implications for older adults, he said. “This is something we could use to think about optimizing the longevity of people and increasing the quality of their life.”

Clinical trials of oral EPO, also known as insulin-like growth factor-2, have been unsuccessful and have raised ethical concerns over whether giving such a dose could lead to higher rates of cancer and heart disease, Coumnecht said. Earlier this year, a study showed that EPO increased the risk of experiencing a heart attack in adult children of children with congenital heart disease.

“There are quite a few unintended side effects. We don’t have a complete picture yet,” he said. “We believe it is something we can learn about and approach.”

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