Category: science

Do You Live Less if Your Mom Was Stressed?

Posted in parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on August 12, 2011

Not long ago, a handful of scientists at the University of California at Irvine were curious about why some people live longer than others — even within groups that have similar ethnic and educational backgrounds, demographic and disease risk profiles, and are exposed to similar stressors in life.  At heart, they know the question is impossible to answer.  People are complex. The effects of life events on our genes—what we eat, what we breathe, who we love and how well we’re loved, and so on —are impossible to isolate.

But the scientists had a hunch that some of us had a bad start —beginning in the womb — because our mothers were highly stressed during pregnancy.   There’s an avalanche of evidence that women who are under extreme duress in pregnancy have kids who have shorter attention spans, lower IQ, memory deficiencies, and health problems.  

Could prenatal stress also set a baby’s life expectancy clock to tick faster?

One way to find out is to look at the genes of people whose mothers were extremely stressed during pregnancy. In each of our cells are DNA-protein complexes called telomeres, which cap the end of chromosomes.  Telomeres are like the plastic bit at the end of a shoelace to keep it from unraveling. Each time a cell divides, they become a little shorter. This makes telomeres something of a longevity marker. People with long tips at the end of their DNA strands tend to live longer than people who have short tips.  It doesn’t matter how long your shoelace is; what counts is the integrity of the cap.

In the UCI study, researchers recruited volunteers in their twenties. Some were selected because their mothers experienced a horrid event during pregnancy.  The scientists weren’t looking for the normal pregnancy stressors — work-life balance, weight gain, fretting about the baby’s health, and so on. They meant extreme stressors: a sudden divorce, a death in the family, a natural disaster, and physical or emotional abuse.

What they found is disturbing.

Compared to the control group (whose moms had a relatively stress-free pregnancy), people exposed to their moms’ extreme prenatal stress had significantly shorter telomeres.  By our mid-twenties, most of us lose about 60 base pairs of telomere length annually.  Not so of people who were exposed to extreme prenatal stress — they lose drastically more telomere length each year. The men had 178 fewer base pairs on average (equivalent to 3.5 additional years of aging).  Women had a shocking 295 base-pair deficit  (5 years of accelerated aging). It seems that a mother’s prenatal stress hits her daughter harder than her son.

How does this happen?  During pregnancy, stress may alter blood flow, oxygen, and glucose metabolism between mother and baby. High levels of the stress hormone cortisol from the mother flood the placental barrier. Excess cortisol may also slow down in the production of telomerase, an enzyme that acts as a repair kit for telomeres. Telomerase adds telomeric DNA to shortened telomeres. It regenerates our cells and tissues.  Like a fountain of youth, telomerase gives back what time takes away.

So what if you’re on a telomerase-less trajectory?

Here’s the big relief:  Your clock doesn’t have to keep ticking so quickly, even if it has been set that way before birth. There’s strong evidence that lifestyle changes can amp up telomerase production. One study found that stress management, counseling, and a healthy diet are associated with higher telomerase activity.  Another found that meditation turns up the telomerase dial.  

In the research community there’s much interest in the idea that, by maintaining our telomeres, gene therapy might someday reverse or prevent aging if started early enough.  Is it possible? As a measure to conceal the abuses of youth, teens could freebase on telomerase. 

Oh, the ways to stress out Mom.

 

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

Assorted Trifles (from the science of love, sex, and babies)

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on August 4, 2011

Research is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to find. An assortment of studies on love, sex, and babies — fresh from the lab.

Scientists found that men whose ring fingers are longer than their index fingers are likelier to have longer-than-average penises, at least among Korean men whose flaccid genitals were stretched under anesthesia. Studying the files of women who were raped in 1999-2006, French researchers discovered that there were fewer incidences of living sperm than in rape victims in previous generations, which supports the theory that sperm quality is declining. Women are likelier to get pregnant if they ovulate from their right-side ovary, visible by ultrasound, especially after two consecutive left-side cycles, inspiring women undergoing fertility treatment to desire a L-L-R pattern. Among women whose fetuses inexplicably died in third trimester, 64 percent (392/614) had a premonition before their doctors told them. They described a feeling of discomfort, of a strange unease; that they understood subconsciously that the baby would die. Many described how they dreamed of dead relatives and of death on the night the baby probably died. A recent fMRI study reported that women who had given birth vaginally exhibited greater activation in brain regions involved in the regulation of empathy, arousal, motivation and reward circuits in response to their baby’s cries compared to those who had not. Women who snore loudly and frequently were at high risk for low birth weight (relative risk = 2.6 [95% confidence interval = 1.2-5.4]), and fetal-growth-restricted neonates. The success of an IVF transfer may in part be predicted by how much glucose medium an embryo “eats” on days 4 and 5. On Day 4, female embryos consume significantly more sugar than males.

Publishers Weekly — First Review for Chocolate Lovers!

Posted in book reviews, magazine articles, media, news, parenting, pregnancy, science, sex by jenapincott on

My first review for Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?, from this week’s Publishers Weekly.

—-

Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: Exploring the Surprising Science of Pregnancy
Jena Pincott. Free Press, $15 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-4391-8334-2
Science writer Pincott (Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?) began her research when she was pregnant; her daughter was born during the writing process, and she describes the work as “curiosity -driven,” urging readers to flip to the pages that interest them most. As Pincott negotiates her pregnancy, she explores a wide array of subjects expectant parents will find utterly captivating, drawing from studies in evolutionary psychology, biology, social science, neuroscience, reproductive genetics, endocrinology, and largely from research in the field of epigenetics, the influence of environment on the behavior of genes. She examines each phase of her own pregnancy, addressing odor and taste aversions (the “gag list”), vivid dreams, how diet affects a gene’s behavior, and a wealth of other subjects. She delves into how dads react to pregnancy (many put on weight) and makes the remarkable observation that what grandma ate when pregnant way back when may influence the baby’s future health (“I’m eating for two generations,” she quips). While readers will be entertained and fascinated by this text from start to finish, the concluding chapter, “Lessons from the Lab,” offers expectant mothers a valuable summary of practical research-based tips (moderate stress experienced by mom may actually be good for the fetus; eating a chocolate bar a day may improve baby’s temperament). Pincott writes with humor and vibrancy, bringing science to life.

Do Fish and Coconuts Reverse Prenatal Stress?

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on July 22, 2011

Is it any coincidence that the most laidback people I’ve ever met hail from Brazil, land of fish and coconuts?  

The mellowness of Brazilians came to mind when I read a study on prenatal stress to be published next month in the International Journal of Neurodevelopmental Medicine. The researchers, including lead author Carlos Galduróz, are biologists at  Universidade Federal de São Paulo (in Brazil).

It’s been long known that significant prenatal stress — characterized by a blitz of  the stress hormone cortisol — harms a fetus. Prenatal stress results in an increased risk of premature birth and low birthweight.  In humans, it’s linked with anxiety, attention deficit disorder, impaired memory, low test scores in childhood, and depressive behavior in adulthood.  Rats whose mothers are exposed to extreme stressors are likelier to have impaired motor skills and are slower to learn.

Intriguingly, there’s evidence that the mother’s diet might offset some of these disadvantages.  A baby whose stressed-out mom ate “special” foods during pregnancy and lactation may fare better than one whose equally stressed -out mom ate a normal diet. 

Galduróz and his colleagues were curious to know if the composition of fat in a prenatal diet might make the difference. So, during the equivalent of second and third trimester, they subjected some of the rats in their study to extreme stress — restraint and bright lights for forty-finve minutes, three times daily.  Some of these pregnant rats were fed a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, the kind found in salmon, sardines, and other fish. Others were fed a diet high in saturated fatty acid from coconut milk. A third group ate normal rat chow.

The results?

As expected, babies of stressed-out moms had lower birth weights.  The surprise came three weeks later:  Babies whose moms ate fish oil or coconut fat diets during pregnancy and lactation gained weight quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they became the same weight as the babies whose moms weren’t stressed during pregnancy.  In other words, fish and coconut fats reversed the impact of low birthweight, a potentially dangerous effect of prental stress.

That’s not all.

Babies exposed to prenatal stress were more active (restless) than other pups if their moms were on a regular or coconut-oil diet.  Interestingly, if a stressed-out mother was on a fish oil diet, her pups were not more restless than those of pups with non-stressed moms.

In an earlier study by the same authors, adult rats whose moms ate a coconut fat or fish oil-based diet released fewer stress hormones (a reduced corticosteroid response) than rats whose moms ate a normal diet.

Many studies have shown that fish oil, omega-3s, modulate mood by reducing the stress response. This has been shown in rat studies, and also in many (but not all) human studies.  Is it possible that when a mother consumes food containing omega-3s, her babies are less agitated? Are they happier?  Of course, rodents express anxiety, neuroticism, and depression differently from human babies.  But the healing effect of nutrients is fascinating.  Do stressed-out moms on fish-and-coconut diets have happier, healthier babies than their equally stressed peers who don’t eat as well?

For the real possibility that  fish and coconut oil have prenatal physical and psychological perks, I link to a favorite recipe here. It’s for moqueca, a stew made of fish and coconut fats, from Bahia, the Coconut Coast of Brazil.

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

 

Do Flame Retardants Make Us Dimmer?

Posted in parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on July 6, 2011

When I was in the second trimester of pregnancy, my husband and I bought a new king-sized mattress.  Like all cotton mattresses sold in the U.S., ours had been treated with a flame retardant containing polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and/or organohalogen compounds (OHCs). Flame retardants are also in pillows, car and airplane seats, drapes, rugs, and insulation. They’re in electronic equipment, like TVs, and in the dust on top of TVs.  They’re in air and soil and breast milk.  Almost all humans have flame retardants flowing through their veins.

             Around the same time I got my new mattress (on which I tossed and turned in third trimester), two surprising studies were published on the effects of flame retardants on fetuses and young children.

Study #1

A group of researchers at the University of Gronigden in the Netherlands recruited nearly 70 pregnant women in third trimester, taking samples of their blood and measuring it for PBDEs and OHCs. Five years later, the children were given standardized developmental tests for motor skills (balance and coordination), cognition (intelligence, spatial skills, control, verbal memory, and attention), and behavior.

The result:  PBDEs were correlated with worse performance on fine motor tasks and a shortened attention span.  Strikingly, they were also linked with better coordination and visual perception, as well as better (more placid?) behavior.  OHCs, meanwhile, were correlated with worse fine motor skills. Oddly, these kids had better visual perception.

 Study #2

 Researchers at Columbia University tested for PBDEs in the cord blood of nearly 400 women who delivered their babies at a New York City hospital.  These children were given mental and motor development tests in infancy and, later, at four-to-six years. These tests measure memory, problem solving, habituation, language, mathematical concept formation, and object constancy.  They also assess ability to manipulate hands and fingers and control and coordinate their movements.

 The result:  At both age intervals, children who had higher cord blood concentrations of PBDEs scored significantly lower on tests of mental (lower IQ) and motor development.  This was particularly evident at age two for motor skills and age four for IQ (nearly 8 points lower for certain PBDEs).

 

            Are flame retardants slowing us down? Correlation is not causation, but there’s a real risk that they do — and researchers have some ideas about how these chemicals have a toxic effects on the brain. OHCs (for instance) have been found to decrease a fetus’s production of thyroid hormone by interfering with thyroid receptors. This leads to an increase in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH). Brain development in the fetus relies on the precise timing and quantity of thyroid hormone; too much or too little causes developmental delays. High prenatal exposure to TSH is associated with lower IQs – 4 points less on average.  During critical developmental periods, PBDEs and OHCs may also have a toxic effect on neurons in the hippocampus, the memory region of the brain, by reducing the number of neurotrasnmitter receptors.

            Infants and toddlers have what researchers call a high “body burden” of flame retardants. Household dust, which floor-playing infants and toddlers encounter constantly, accounts for 80-93 percent of postnatal PBDE exposure, followed by breast milk (however, the benefits of nursing appear to outweigh this drawback; breastfed babies score higher on neurodevelopmental tests). 

            A disturbing fact is that American kids have levels of PCBEs that are 10 to 1,000 times higher than their peers in Europe or Asia. We produce 1.2 billion pounds of the stuff annually. (Interestingly, the Scandivanian study, whose subjects had lower levels of prenatal exposure, found no IQ deficit while the U.S. study did.) Consider our nation’s problems:  attention deficit disorder, placidity, lower standardized test scores in reading and math.

Are flame retardants making kids dimmer?

            The question fires up the imagination.  Should pregnant women be advised to avoid, say, dusting and buying new mattresses in the same way we avoid emptying the litter box (to avoid toxoplasmosis)? Are the perceived gains in visual perception real, and, if so, why, and do they come at the expense of other abilities? Are urban kids at a higher risk  than average? Are there naturally flame-retardant materials that we can use in lieu of chemicals?   More research, especially on American kids, is warranted.

            After all, the nightmare scenarios can keep an expectant mom up all night, tossing and turning on her nonflammable mattress.

 

 * If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

WAAROM VROUWEN CHOCOLA LEKKERDER VINDEN DAN SEKS

Posted in psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on July 4, 2011


The new Dutch mass market edition of Blondes (retitled, in loose translation, “Why Women Prefer Chocolate to Sex”)

The Real Purpose of Eyebrows?

Posted in psychology, science by jenapincott on

Human faces are relatively flat. Alas, evolution has flattened the jutting jaw and the bulging brow ridge. 

Fortunately, we still have one reliable landmark:  the eyebrow.

According to a study by MIT behavioral neuroscientist Javid Sadr and his colleagues, eyebrows have remained because they are crucial to facial identification. Faces without eyebrows are like land without landmarks.

The study:  Volunteers were asked to identify fifty famous faces, including that of former U.S. president Richard Nixon and actor Winona Ryder.  The photos were digitally altered and displayed either without eyebrows or without eyes. When celebrities lacked eyes, subjects could recognize them nearly 60 percent of the time.  However, when celebrities lacked eyebrows, subjects recognized them only 46 percent of time.

The lesson:  eyebrows are crucial to facial identity — they’re at least as important as your eyes, if not more so.  If you put colored contacts in your eyes, pumped collagen into your lips, or put on a pair of funky sunglasses, people would probably still recognize you easily.  But try shaving off your eyebrows. Chances are that everyone will say they didn’t recognize you at first glance.

As Sadr points out, eyebrows pop out against the backdrop of your face — and for that reason not only identify who you are but how you’re feeling. Along with the lips, they may in fact be the most expressive part of your body. The single raised eyebrow is a universal sign of skepticism, and the dual raised eyebrow a sign of surprise.

The shape of your eyebrows also reveals, in a glance, a lot about your age and other characteristics.  Bushy, gnarly, salt-and-pepper brows:  older apha males. Thin, graceful arcs:  young, stylish women.  Sparse, light brows:  youths.  Waxed and tweezed, the brow can advertise good grooming.

Eyebrows sometimes meet each other halfway across the bridge of the nose, especially on men, to form a monobrow, which resembles the vanished browridge of our primate ancestors.  Distinctive? Yes, and also brow-raising.

 *This entry was previously published on this blog. If you wish, also check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

Are Extroverts That Way Because of Their Fathers?

Posted in parenting, psychology, science by jenapincott on June 24, 2011

All babies demand their parents’ attention. But how many 11-month-olds demand the attention of strangers, too? Ours does. We bring her to restaurants and she scans the room until she catches someone’s eye. My husband will pick her up and carry her over to her admirer, whom he’ll chat up. Dad’s a socialite, Baby’s a socialite. Mom reaches into her bag and pulls out a book.

You might think your baby’s social confidence depends on the usual mix of genes and environment. This is true, but it might not be the whole truth. There’s also evidence that children rely more on their father’s social signals than their mother’s. That is, socially confident dads may have more socially confident kids. Socially anxious fathers may have more socially anxious kids. It matters less whether Mom is a social butterfly or a bookworm.

The bulk of the research on paternal influence on sociability comes from Susan Bogels, a professor in Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Amsterdam, and her colleague Enrico Perotti. In a recent review, Bogels and Perotti draw on research that suggests a dominant paternal role in their children’s sociability, including:

In one study, 9-11-year-olds were asked to imagine themselves in a series of stories involving strangers, while their mother and father responded in a socially anxious or socially confident way. Children who had socially anxiety were more influenced by their father’s reaction more than their mother’s.

A study of boys with behavioral problems, including social anxiety, found that fathering, but not mothering, predicted the children’s level of inhibition. In another study, secure infant-father attachment, but not infant-mother attachment, predicted stranger sociability among toddlers.

• Among kids enrolled in treatment for social anxiety, those whose fathers had high levels of social anxiety had a worse outcome (were more socially anxious) than those whose mothers had it. Socially anxious mothers are not as likely as socially anxious fathers to make their kids less sociable.

So here’s the mystery: Why would fathers, who have less to do with childrearing than mothers, have more influence on their children’s sociabilty?

It’s an interesting question, and Bogels and Perotti have an interesting answer. “In the course of human history,” they write, “fathers specialized in external protection (e.g. confronting the external world outside the clan or extended family), while mothers provided internal protection (e.g. providing comfort and food). Therefore, children may be hardwired to respond more to their father’s signals about the social world than the mother’s, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

Through the ages, it benefited children to rely more on their father’s than mother’s cues about whether unfamiliar people are generally hostile or cooperative. Of course, gender roles have long since changed – moms go out into the world every day and meet strangers – but our instincts haven’t.

So the lesson here is that fathers orient their children outward, mothers inward. When researchers observed a group of toddlers taking swimming lessons, they took note of where the parents stood. Mothers protectively stood in front of their babies, encouraging face-to-face interaction with them. Fathers stood in back, so that their children would face their social environment.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Bogel and Perotti’s review includes a fascinating aside about paternal roughhousing and its effect on children’s social confidence. Rough-and-tumble play – I think of my husband tossing our infant in the air, spinning her around, throwing her over his shoulder, as she giggles and squeals- gets a scientific seal of approval.

Here’s why. Kids learn to associate physiological arousal – a racing heart, tight chest, spinning head – with fun instead of fear, which crosses over into other social interaction. Roughhousing also involves behavior – being aggressive, sneaky, teasing, playful – that requires different roles and different responses, and forms a basis for social skills. By pinning kids to the ground, swinging them like sacks of potatoes, attacking them and getting attacked – fathers make their progeny more confident.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

So many questions. If we have evolved so that fathers strongly influence their children’s sociability, what does this mean?

It means that fathers who are socially anxious themselves are likelier to have kids who are not socially confident. If a kid suffers from severe social anxiety, perhaps his or her father should be involved in the kid’s therapy or get therapy himself. But what about kids who don’t have fathers who are involved or live at home? How do mothers compensate? And what about gender? So far there is no evidence that boys are more susceptible to the father’s signals than are girls, but is this really so? And what about other male figures – male teachers, older brothers, uncles, grandfathers – are they equally influential? At what age is paternal influence on sociability strongest? And are paternal genes more influential here too?

Further research is warranted. Until then, we can wonder about the great socialites in history – the Jackie Os, Andy Warhols, Paris Hiltons, Truman Capotes, Gloria Vanderbilts, Nan Kempners, and Ivana Trumps. Did they get it from their dads?

 

 

 

Are Men Likelier to Cheat When Their Partners are Pregnant?

Posted in parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on June 13, 2011

It’s bad enough that  Congressman Anthony Weiner had been taking photos of his naked self and sending them to women who weren’t his wife.  It’s worse when we learn that his wife is three months pregnant.

Aha, that it!, some cynics claim.  Now that Weiner’s oats are sowed, he’s exploring new (and, if the twittering teen rumor is real, very green) pastures.  It’s only natural.

But is it?  Are men really more likely to cheat when their wives are pregnant?

Turns out, the answer is that it depends on the man.

Reviewing the studies of pregnancy and sex, it seems there are three categories of expectant fathers. 

  • Type Z cheats or wants to cheat (the Weiners). 
  • Type Y desires his pregnant wife more than ever.
  • And then there’s Type X  — a man who has a decreased sex drive and a lower risk of cheating on his wife.

The bad news is that at least one study found that, yes, the risk of a given man to cheat on his wife increases during pregnancy, even if he is otherwise satisfied in his marriage.  His reasons? He may feel ambivalent about the pregnancy or the changes that go with it. His partner, especially in her first and third trimesters, may not feel like having sex.  Her sex drive may diminish. She may think her body is unattractive.

(Incidentally, bodily dissatisfaction happens to be the number one reason why most women have less sex during pregnancy.  Most of us think pregnancy is a turn-off for men.  That’s a misconception.)

But here’s the good news for pregnant women.  Fact is, many men — the majority as found in this study — desire their pregnant partner even more over the course of the pregnancy, even if they aren’t having as much sex as before. They find her as physically attractive as she was prepregnancy, if not more so. These are usually the Type Y guys. Another study found that, while couples had sex less frequently in third trimester, the only circumstances under which men change their sexual behavior is if they are older or worried about the safety of the fetus. (Note:  Sex does not raise the risk of miscarriage in pregnancies that are not high risk.) Otherwise, men desire sex with their wives just as much.

From an evolutionary perspective,this makes some sense.  Women benefited from having their mates around to help support them through pregnancy and childrearing. Sex helps men stick around.

The Type X expectant father – the one with a low sex drive and a lower risk of infidelity – may overlap with Type Ys. These are men who, at some point over the nine months, are afflicted with pregnancy symptoms:  nausea, weight gain, mood swings, fatigue, even vomiting. Hormones are the culprit.  These men have higher levels of prolactin, a hormone associated with sluggishness, weight gain, and bonding and parental behaviors.  Their testosterone levels plummet, making them less combative and sexually aggressive.

There’s an upside to Type Xs. It turns out that these faithful, fattening men display the most fatherly behavior when the baby arrives.  As new dads, they’re more likely to hear and respond to their infant’s cries.  They’re more compassionate and tolerant.  They make better fathers.

One might speculate that Weiner’s Type-Z behavior while his wife is pregnant doesn’t bode well for Weiner’s fathering instincts. It’s clear that if any hormone is raging in the man, it’s testosterone — not prolactin. He is probably not sharing his wife’s morning sickness and taking turns with her over the toilet.

There’s no crime in what Weiner has done; he’s just another politician more interested in power more than paternity.  But he is making us a little nauseous.

 *If you like this blog, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies: Exploring the Surprising Science of Pregnancy. 

 

Eternal Sunshine of the Springtime Mind

Posted in magazine articles, media, science by jenapincott on May 28, 2011

Warm weather isn’t just good for the flowers. Sunny days have been linked to higher stock returns, and touching a warm object can make people more generous. My article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

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