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March 21, 2014
Another Use for Xenon
An Australian reader sends this along from The Economist. Apparently xenon has been used for several years now to enhance athletic performance - who knew? Well, athletes, for one - here's an Australian cycling magazine talking about it, and Russian athletic federations have been recommending it for some time. That cycling article has a copy of a letter from the Russian Olympic committee, thanking a supplier for providing xenon to help prepare the team for the 2006 winter games in Turin.
One's first impulse would be to snort and say "Snake oil!", but one's first impulse would probably be wrong. Xenon exposure is known to set off production of the protein Hif-1-alpha, which makes sense, given that "Hif" stands for "hypoxia-inducible-factor". Increased levels are known to stimulate production of erythropoetin (a natural response to hypoxia, for sure), and xenon's effect on this whole system (demonstrated in mice and in rat cell assays) seems to be unusually long-lasting. I'd speculate that that has to do with its lipid solubility; a good strong dose of xenon probably takes longer to clear out of the tissues than you might think.
But as the Australian article goes on to argue, correctly, we don't have much reliable human data, on xenon's effects on Hif-1A in humans, on the corresponding increase in EPO, and on whether those increases are enough to really affect performance. A placebo effect would need to be ruled out, at the very least. It's also not a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (and banning it might be tricky), so athletes competing with it are not in violation of any rules. Given that xenon is already of medical interest for preventing hypoxia-related injury, I'll bet that it won't be going away any time soon.
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