Epo: The body's own substance significantly promotes mental performance

Epo: The body's own substance significantly promotes mental performance

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Erythropoietin: the body's own doping and brain remedies

Many people are familiar with the term epo or erythropoietin in connection with doping agents in sports because the administration of epo promotes the formation of red blood cells, which is said to achieve a performance-increasing effect. A German research team has now found out for the first time how erythropoietin works. It is an endogenous stimulant for the brain to increase mental performance and can also reduce the effects of strokes and mental illnesses.

For the first time, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine in Göttingen deciphered how Epo protects and regenerates nerve cells in the brain. Accordingly, the brain produces the substance in response to slight oxygen deficiencies that are triggered by mental challenges. Epo leads to the formation of new nerve cells from neighboring progenitor cells and that nerve cells connect more effectively, which makes the brain more efficient. The study results were recently presented in the renowned journal "Nature Communications".

What is erythropoietin

Erythropoietin (Epo for short) is a growth factor, i.e. a protein that is transmitted as a signal from one cell to a second and thus passes on information. Among other things, Epo promotes the production of red blood cells and is therefore considered a highly potent active ingredient that is often used to increase illegal performance in sports. The current study now shows that the brain uses Epo as the body's own doping agent to strengthen mental performance.

Epo improves memory and learning success

Hannelore Ehrenreich and her colleagues at the Max Planck Institute have been researching the role of epo in the brain for years. In animal experiments on mice, the team has now systematically investigated how the performance-enhancing effect in the brain is caused by Epo. The study shows that adult mice form 20 percent more nerve cells in the pyramidal layer of the hippocampus after administration of Epo. This region of the brain is crucial for memory and learning.

"In addition, the nerve cells network better and faster with other nerve cells and thus exchange signals more efficiently," reports Ehrenreich.

Mice learned complex movements faster

In experiments, the researchers had mice trained on special running wheels. The distances between the spokes were arranged at irregular intervals. "Running in these bikes requires learning complex movements that are particularly challenging for the brain," explains Ehrenreich. With the administration of Epo, the mice were able to learn the required movement sequences much faster and they were also much more resilient than mice that did not receive an Epo.

How does this performance-enhancing effect come about?

In a series of targeted experiments, the researchers from Göttingen were able to prove that nerve cells need more oxygen than they normally have when learning complex motor tasks. This results in a slight lack of oxygen in the brain called relative hypoxia. This hypoxia also gives the signal for an increased epo production.

"This is a self-reinforcing process," explains Ehrenreich. Mental effort leads to mild hypoxia. Slight hypoxia increases the production of epo. Epo then increases the activity of the nerve cells, causes the formation of new nerve cells and increases their complex networking. This leads to the "measurable improvement in mental performance in humans and mice," emphasizes Ehrenreich.

Epo makes the brain more effective

According to the researchers, this self-reinforcing cycle can be influenced in different ways. "The mental performance can be increased through consistent learning and mental training via the epo-production of the nerve cells involved," explains the brain researcher. A similar effect could be created by adding additional Epo.

Who can benefit from an epo gift?

The researchers showed that everyone can improve their epo production and thus their mental performance through continuous learning. In some diseases, however, Epo can also be used as an active ingredient. "The administration of Epo improves regeneration after a stroke and thus reduces the damage to the brain," says Ehrenreich.

In addition, sufferers with disorders of intellectual performance through Epo are significantly more efficient. This plays a role in diseases such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorders or multiple sclerosis. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Debia Wakhloo, Franziska Scharkowski, Yasmina Curto, u.a .: Functional hypoxia drives neuroplasticity and neurogenesis via brain erythropoietin; in: Nature Communications, 2020,
  • Max Planck Institute: Doping for the brain of the body (published: 09.03.2020),

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