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Catching Some Xe's Has Strange Effects On The Body

Catching Some Xe's Has Strange Effects On The Body

Noble gas seems to have a host of surprising applications.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014 - 17:30

Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- Xenon is one of the so-called noble gases. It's odorless, colorless and a loner. It very rarely combines with other atoms, or even itself, to form molecules. Like helium, neon, argon, krypton and radon, it's kind of a wallflower that rests on the far right of the periodic table.

Unlike most of those others, though, recent reports show that xenon might improve athletic performance in endurance sports. The gas may also help erase traumatic memories.

The element also has a number of well-established uses, from acting as a neutron absorber in nuclear reactors to applications in astronomy research and anesthesia. But this post is about a pair of surprising findings announced this year.

Doping With Xenon

On the eve of February's Sochi Winter Olympics, an article from The Economist proclaimed that xenon has performance-enhancing powers for endurance athletes, and that it's been used in Russia.

The way xenon improves performance is by encouraging the body to produce erythropoietin, also known as EPO. The idea is that upping EPO in the body encourages the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Here's how The Economist described the process:

"Xenon works its magic by activating production of a protein called Hif-1 alpha. This acts as a transcription factor: a chemical switch that turns on production of a variety of other proteins, one of which is EPO. Artificially raising levels of EPO, by injecting synthetic versions of the hormone or by taking so-called Hif stabilizers (drugs that discourage the breakdown of Hif-1 alpha), is illegal under the rules of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Other methods of boosting the hormone, however, are permissible—and that fact has not gone unnoticed by the Russian sports authorities."

Medical studies show additional benefits, including improved lung capacity, NBC Sports noted in February. Russian sports officials subsequently denied using xenon with their athletes, but WADA subsequently banned the inhalation of xenon and its noble gas cousin argon.

The ban goes into effect this week, the BBC reports, despite the lack of an effective test for exposure to either gas.

Xe-no Memories

In August, the journal PLOS One published a paper from a team of psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Massachusetts entitled "Xenon Impairs Reconsolidation of Fear Memories in a Rat Model of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)."

The press release quoted one of the authors, Edward G. Meloni, as saying "It's an exciting breakthrough, as this has the potential to be a new treatment for individuals suffering from PTSD."

The researchers think low concentrations of xenon gas can interfere with a process called reconsolidation, which is when recalled memories can be modified. The scientists conditioned the rats to be afraid of cues by pairing them with short foot shocks. Later, they measured how the rats reacted to those cues indicating they would be getting shocked. After a treatment with xenon, the mice were much less afraid of the cues for up to two weeks.

The research has only been done on rats at this point, but could potentially be useful for people, the statement said:

"Given that intrusive re-experiencing of traumatic memories – including flashbacks, nightmares, and distress and physiological reactions induced when confronted with trauma reminders – is a hallmark symptom for many who suffer from PTSD, a treatment that alleviates the impact of those painful memories could provide welcome relief."

All this from a quiet gas that tends to keep to itself.

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Chris Gorski

Chris Gorski is an Editor for Inside Science and runs the Sports beat. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.