Oscar Pistorius: A Case for Testosterone and Violence?

Learning of Oscar Pistorius' Valentine's Day tragedy came as a complete shock to most of the world who rooted for the incredible double-amputee sprinter underdog at the 2012 London Olympic Games. How is it possible that this much-loved hero could kill his beautiful model girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp?

One reason Pistorius solemnly gave the courts was that he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder. (South Africa sees some 17,000 house robberies and nearly a quarter of a million burglaries annually, says Sports Illustrated.)

 But his testimony didn't quite explain the very violent shoot-to-kill act of firing four bullets through a locked bathroom door (three fatally hit Steenkamp), so Pistorius, who was just released on bail for about $112,000, may be facing charges of premeditated murder, which carries a life sentence, when the trial resumes on June 4.

Making matters worse, police reports state that they found boxes of testosterone and needles in Pistorius' bedroom. His defense lawyer immediately dismissed all allegations of banned substance abuse a la Lance Armstrong. He wrote the meds off as an “herbal remedy” that's neither illegal nor steroids. Had it been the latter, Pistorius might have had a case (albeit a poor one) for violence.

“Certain men who are taking high doses of steroids—about five to ten percent—become very irritable and aggressive, developing what's commonly called 'roid rage',” says David Sack, M.D., CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles. “They can go off for no reason and become impulsive."

Research has long shown a correlation between high testosterone levels and aggressive behavior in men. “Testosterone increases dopamine activity in the brain as well as receptor responses to dopamine,” Dr. Sack explains. “Dopamine makes you irritable, paranoid, and hostile when it's too high.”

But even if Pistorius was influenced by steroids, Dr. Sack says it probably wouldn't have clouded his judgment. “It's hard to say what he was thinking at the time, but when people talk about whether someone was mentally competent, the issue is were they able to evaluate what was going on and were they able to make decisions based on that information,” he says. “It would be a stretch to say someone in a 'roid rage' wasn't competent in a legal sense. They're not usually delusional or having hallucinations; they're just really agitated.”

Since steroids have been ruled out of Pistorius' case for now, could one argue that testosterone-promoting supplements, such as this so-called herbal remedy, may increase sudden violent outbursts?

“It's not clear that higher testosterone results in a major shift in behavior when it's your own because there's a homeostatic process that allows your body to adjust,” Dr. Sack says. “However many things that are labeled as nutritional supplements have been shown to contain banned substances like GHB, growth hormones, and other stuff that can really cause the change.”

In other words, there's a slight chance that Pistorius' legal homeopathic meds may have been contaminated. The tricky part, as Armstrong will tell you is, that some of these performance-enhancing designer steroids are virtually undetectable in the bloodstream. Which leaves us waiting for the truth to reveal itself in due time, as it did with Armstrong. Perhaps by June, this sad, senseless crime will finally make sense.

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