Chapter 8. Hormones and Sex
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by Kai Kupferschmidt Human beings tend to avoid places that smell of urine. But to mice, there is something positively addictive about the scent; they like to go back to a spot where they found the excretions again and again. Now, researchers have discovered that this behavior is triggered by a single protein in the urine of male mice. Mice use scent to mark their territory, advertise their social dominance, and convey information about their health and reproductive status. But these are usually volatile pheromones that disperse quickly, and it has remained unclear what exactly stimulates a female to be attracted to a specific male. Previous research had shown that female laboratory mice often return to a place where they have come across cage bedding soiled by males. Now, researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom have confirmed this. Female mice spent five times as much time in a place where they had encountered a dish with male urine than at a place where they encountered water. Just 10 minutes of exposure to the urine was enough for the mice to show this place preference even after 14 days. However, if the mice were prevented from by a mesh screen touching the urine with their nose, the place seemed to lose its attractiveness. "That suggested that the story was not as simple as everybody assumed and volatile pheromones were not responsible," says behavioral ecologist Jane Hurst, one of the authors of the study. By separating the urine into different fractions, the scientists showed that a protein called darcin that they had identified in 2005—and which mice can only detect if their noses touch the urine—is responsible for the frequent visits. Pure darcin, produced in cell culture in the lab, elicited the same reaction, the authors report online today in Science. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
by Elizabeth Norton From a strictly Darwinian viewpoint, homosexuality shouldn't still be around. It isn't the best way to pass along one's genes, and to complicate the picture further, no "gay genes" have even been identified. According to a newly released hypothesis, the explanation may not lie in DNA itself. Instead, as an embryo develops, sex-related genes are turned on and off in response to fluctuating levels of hormones in the womb, produced by both mother and child. This tug of war benefits the unborn child, keeping male or female development on a steady course even amid spikes in hormones. But if these so-called epigenetic changes persist once the child is born and has children of its own, some of those offspring may be homosexual, the study proposes. Evolutionary geneticist William Rice of the University of California, Santa Barbara, felt there had to be a reason why homosexuality didn't just fade away down the generations. Research estimates that about 8% of the population is gay, and homosexuality is known to run in families. If one of a set of identical twins is gay, there's a 20% probability that the other will be, too. Furthermore, Rice notes, "homosexuality isn't just a human thing." Among California gulls, which he watches from his office window, about 14% of pairs are female-female. In Australian black swans, some 6% of pairs are male-male, and 8% of male sheep are attracted exclusively to male partners. But many genetic screens have failed to turn up genes that are responsible for sexual orientation. So to find out what makes homosexuality persist, Rice and colleagues began a comprehensive survey of the literature. © 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Robert Martone The link between a mother and child is profound, and new research suggests a physical connection even deeper than anyone thought. The profound psychological and physical bonds shared by the mother and her child begin during gestation when the mother is everything for the developing fetus, supplying warmth and sustenance, while her heartbeat provides a soothing constant rhythm. The physical connection between mother and fetus is provided by the placenta, an organ, built of cells from both the mother and fetus, which serves as a conduit for the exchange of nutrients, gasses, and wastes. Cells may migrate through the placenta between the mother and the fetus, taking up residence in many organs of the body including the lung, thyroid muscle, liver, heart, kidney and skin. These may have a broad range of impacts, from tissue repair and cancer prevention to sparking immune disorders. It is remarkable that it is so common for cells from one individual to integrate into the tissues of another distinct person. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as singular autonomous individuals, and these foreign cells seem to belie that notion, and suggest that most people carry remnants of other individuals. As remarkable as this may be, stunning results from a new study show that cells from other individuals are also found in the brain. In this study, male cells were found in the brains of women and had been living there, in some cases, for several decades. What impact they may have had is now only a guess, but this study revealed that these cells were less common in the brains of women who had Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting they may be related to the health of the brain. © 2012 Scientific American
Roger Dobson Love, according to romantics, can have a dramatic effect on the senses: striking lovers blind, deaf or rendering them tongue-tied. But the simple answer to the question of whether any relationship is "the one" seems to be that your ideal man or woman gets up your nose. New research suggests a sense of smell is vital for a good long-term relationship. In the new study, reported in the journal Biological Psychology, researchers looked for the first time at the effect of being born without a sense on smell on men and women's relationships. The research involved analysing data on men and women aged 18 to 46 with no sense of smell and comparing it with information gleaned from a healthy control group. The results showed that men and women who were unable to smell had higher levels of social insecurity, although this manifested itself in different ways. In men, but not in women, it led to fewer relationships. The men with a faulty sense of smell averaged two partners compared with 10 for healthy men. One theory is that the lack of a sense of smell may make men less adventurous. They may have more problems assessing and communicating with other people. They may also be concerned about how they are perceived by others, and worry about their own body odour. © independent.co.uk
By Kate Shaw Early one morning I caught sight of Morpheus, silhouetted against a pink African dawn. Her long, sloping neck was stretched out as she loped away from me, disappearing over a hill. I followed her to a nearby plain and was met with the unmistakable sound of a group of hyenas squabbling over a carcass. Morpheus entered the fray, first lunging at a smaller male on her right. A moment later, she looked up briefly, her nose and mouth covered in blood, then turned and snapped at a hyena feeding nearby. I’m intimately acquainted with Morpheus and these other hyenas because they have been studied for more than twenty years by various members of the lab where I did my Ph.D. research; I’ve staked these hyenas out at dens for hours on end and followed them as they raced across open plains. From watching these animals, we’ve learned about hyenas’ social system, their physiology, and the conservation challenges they face. But to me, it’s the aggression that is the most fascinating thing about hyenas. It’s rule-based and constrained by specific social norms, but at the same time, it’s incredibly primal and ruthless. Studying aggression has helped us understand what makes hyenas tick, offering us a glimpse into the evolutionary pressures that have made them one of the most unusual and misunderstood species in the animal kingdom. For more than 1000 years, people believed that hyenas were hermaphrodites, since female hyenas have long, fully-erectile pseudopenises that mimic male genitalia. Seeing a hyena play the role of mom while sporting what looks like a penis would bewilder even an astute naturalist. Not only do female hyenas look like males, they are also the more aggressive and socially dominant sex, exhibiting aggression more than three times more often than male hyenas do. © 2012 Scientific American
By GRETCHEN REYNOLDS Is playing football like falling in love? That question, which would perhaps not occur to most of us watching hours of the bruising game this holiday season, is the focus of a provocative and growing body of new science examining the role of oxytocin in competitive sports. Oxytocin is, famously, the “love hormone,” a brain peptide known to promote positive intersocial relations. It makes people like one another, especially in intimate relationships. New mothers are awash in oxytocin (which is involved in the labor process), and it is believed that the hormone promotes bonding between mother and infant. New-formed romantic couples also have augmented bloodstream levels of the peptide, many studies show. The original attraction between the lovers seems to prompt the release of oxytocin, and, in turn, its actions in the brain intensify and solidify the allure. Until recently, though, scientists had not considered whether a substance that promotes cuddliness and warm, intimate bonding might also play a role in competitive sports. But the idea makes sense, says Gert-Jan Pepping, a researcher at the Center for Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, and the author of a new review of oxytocin and competition. “Being part of a team involves emotions, as for instance when a team scores, and these emotions are associated with brain chemicals.” Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company
By David P. Barash Critics claim that evolutionary biology is, at best, guesswork. The reality is otherwise. Evolutionists have nailed down how an enormous number of previously unexplained phenomena—in anatomy, physiology, embryology, behavior—have evolved. There are still mysteries, however, and one of the most prominent is the origins of homosexuality. The mystery is simple enough. Its solution, however, has thus far eluded our best scientific minds. The sine qua non for any trait to have evolved is for it to correlate positively with reproductive success, or, more precisely, with success in projecting genes relevant to that trait into the future. So, if homosexuality is in any sense a product of evolution—and it clearly is, for reasons to be explained—then genetic factors associated with same-sex preference must enjoy some sort of reproductive advantage. The problem should be obvious: If homosexuals reproduce less than heterosexuals—and they do—then why has natural selection not operated against it? The paradox of homosexuality is especially pronounced for individuals whose homosexual preference is exclusive; that is, who have no inclination toward heterosexuality. But the mystery persists even for those who are bisexual, since it is mathematically provable that even a tiny difference in reproductive outcome can drive substantial evolutionary change. Copyright 2012.
By Scicurious Last week, Sci covered a paper on the nematode “version” of oxytocin, nematocin, and its role in learning behavior. We usually think of oxytocin-like peptides (including oxytocin and vasopressin), as being linked with emotion, trust, love, and of course, sex. But oxytocin also tends to get a lot of hype, especially as the “love”‘ or “trust” hormone. But it’s not that. It’s much more complicated than that. And understanding the evolution of oxytocin, and its very long history, allows us to understand HOW much more complicated than that. Because while nematodes have an oxytocin-like molecule that has roles in learning behavior…well it also has roles in mating. But I wouldn’t go do far as to call nematocin (oxytocin + nematode = nematocin!) the nematode love drug. Unless, of course, you believe nematodes have deep, passionate, trusting, and communicative one-night worm stands which commence upon immediate contact and end immediately after. Hey, you never know. This happens to be an interesting issue of Science, in which TWO papers were published, both identifying nematocin, at the same time. As they both call the new molecule nematocin, I have hopes that the two groups were happily collaborating with each other to further the interests of science (though I know that many times, when two groups find the name new, hot thing, it’s often a very bitter race to publish). So what is nematocin? Nematocin appears to be a chemical closely related to oxytocin and vasopressin, those much vaunted chemical in mammals which are making so much press for their role in our emotions and moral behavior. But oxytocin and vasopressin are both more complicated than emotion. Vasopressin, for example, plays a role in water balance. And it appears that the newly discovered nematocin in the nematode C. elegans may be similar, with more than one role in more than one system. © 2012 Scientific American
Richard A. Lovett Scientists have known for years that human medications, from anti-inflammatories to the hormones in birth-control pills, are ending up in waterways and affecting fish and other aquatic organisms. But researchers are only beginning to compile the many effects that those drugs seem to be having. And it isn't good news for the fish. One such drug, fluoxetine, is the active ingredient in the antidepressant Prozac. Like some other pharmaceuticals, fluoxetine is excreted in the urine of people taking it, and reaches lakes and waterways through sewage-treatment plants that are unequipped to remove it. To investigate the effects of fluoxetine, researchers have turned to a common US freshwater fish species called the fathead minnow (Pimephales promelas). Normally, fathead minnows show a complex mating behaviour, with males building the nests that females visit to lay their eggs. Once the eggs are laid and fertilized, the males tend to them by cleaning away any fungus or dead eggs. But when fluoxetine is added to the water, all of this changes, said Rebecca Klaper, an ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Great Lakes Water Institute. Klaper presented her results this week at the 2012 meeting of the North American division of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry in Long Beach, California. © 2012 Nature Publishing Group,
By Laura Beil Kotex, the company that first capitalized on the concept of “feminine hygiene” more than 90 years ago, recently gained newfound success after it began targeting an underserved market: girls who start their periods before they start middle school. With hearts, swirls and sparkles, the U brand offers maxi pads and tampons for — OMG! — girls as young as 8, promoted through a neon-hued website with chatty girl-to-girl messages and breezy videos. “When I had my first period I was prepared,” reads one testimonial. “It was the summer before 4th grade….” Today it has become common for girls to enter puberty before discovering Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Over the second half of the 20th century, the average age for girls to begin breast development has dropped by a year or more in the industrialized world. And the age of first menstruation, generally around 12, has advanced by a matter of months. Hispanic and black girls may be experiencing an age shift much more pronounced. The idea of an entire generation maturing faster once had a strong cadre of doubters. In fact, after one of the first studies to warn of earlier puberty in American girls was published in 1997, skeptics complained in the journal Pediatrics that “many of us in the field of pediatric endocrinology believe that it is premature to conclude that the normal age of puberty is occurring earlier.” Today, more than 15 years later, a majority of doctors appear to have come around to the idea. Have a conversation with a pediatric endocrinologist, and it isn’t long before you hear the phrase “new normal.” © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times If retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus had gotten an occasional dose of supplemental oxytocin, a brain chemical known to promote trust and bonding, he might still be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, new research suggests. A study published Tuesday in the Journal of Neuroscience has uncovered a surprising new property of oxytocin, finding that when men in monogamous relationships got a sniff of the stuff, they subsequently put a little extra space between themselves and an attractive woman they'd just met. Oxytocin didn't have the same effect on single heterosexual men, who comfortably parked themselves between 21 and 24 inches from the comely female stranger. The men who declared themselves in "stable, monogamous" relationships and got a dose of the hormone chose to stand, on average, about 6 1/2 inches farther away. When researchers conducted the experiment with a placebo, they found no differences in the distance that attached and unattached men maintained from a woman they had just met. Even when an attractive woman was portrayed only in a photograph, the monogamous men who received oxytocin put a bit more distance between themselves and her likeness. But when the new acquaintance was a man, administration of oxytocin did not prompt attached men to stand farther away than single men, the researchers reported. Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2012
by Andy Coghlan Men with partners increase the space they feel comfortable with between themselves and an attractive woman if exposed to the bonding hormone oxytocin. René Hurlemann at the University of Bonn in Germany and colleagues gave men either a sniff of oxytocin or a placebo before asking them to choose the ideal distance for an interaction with a woman. The distance that they felt was comfortable significantly increased after sniffing oxytocin, but only for men in relationships. The team conclude that oxytocin discourages partnered but not single men from getting close to a female stranger. Journal reference: Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.2755-12.2012 © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By SINDYA N. BHANOO Fairywrens teach their chicks a password, a unique note, to differentiate them from imposters. “We call this an incubation call,” said Mark Hauber, an animal behaviorist at Hunter College at the City University of New York and an author of the study, which appears in the journal Current Biology. “The more times the mother calls, the better the mimicry of the chicks.” The teaching begins a few days before the birds hatch. And while “the cuckoo chick is very adaptable and tries out many begging calls until it sounds similar to the fairywren,” Dr. Hauber said, it also has a shorter incubation period. So it hatches several days before fairywren chicks, leaving it little time to practice and perfect the passwordlike call of the fairywren mother. Generally, when a cuckoo hatches it throws out the other eggs in the nest. When a mother does not hear her unique call from her babies, she abandons the nest. Male fairywrens help their mates care for their young, so the mother teaches her mate and any other helpers the password through the performance of a special song. “In the future we’d like to do some brain imaging on the embryos using noninvasive functional M.R.I.’s,” Dr. Hauber said. “We want to see how these embryos are listening, practicing and learning these relevant vocalizations.” © 2012 The New York Times Company
By Laura Sanders The effects of a baby’s rough start can linger. An early stressful environment during a baby girl’s first year was associated with altered brain behavior and signs of anxiety in her late teens, scientists report online November 11 in Nature Neuroscience. Although the results are preliminary, they may help reveal how negative experiences early on can sculpt the brain. Studies in animals have pointed out how tough times in childhood can influence the brain and the animals’ behavior later in life. But it’s been hard to figure out how that process works in people, says Lawrence Price, a psychiatrist and clinical neuroscientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. “One of the real advances of this paper is that it helps move us along on that pathway,” he says. The study, led by Cory Burghy of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, drew from the Wisconsin Study of Family and Work, which in 1990 recruited pregnant women in southern Wisconsin at prenatal visits. Three times during the first year of their babies’ lives, the mothers reported whether they were experiencing stressful situations such as depression, marital conflict, money woes or parenting stress. Researchers assumed that women who reported higher stress levels created a more stressful situation for their baby. Four and a half years later, daughters whose moms reported higher levels of stress had more of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood. That observation suggests the girls had trouble shutting down a hyperactive stress response. The same effect wasn’t found in boys. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
By Laura Sanders In the fraught, emotional world of speed dating, scientific calculations don’t usually hold much sway. But the brain runs a complex series of computations to tally the allure of a prospective partner in just seconds, a new study finds. And the strength of these brain signals predicted which speed daters would go on to score a match. The results help explain how people evaluate others — a process that happens at lightning speed, says neuroscientist Daniela Schiller of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “It’s a gut feeling, but here, the paper dissects it for us and tells us, ‘This is what we calculate.’” Scientists led by Jeffrey Cooper, who conducted the work at Trinity College Dublin and Caltech, scanned the brains of single volunteers as they looked at pictures of potential dating partners. Although it’s hard to put a number on people by a photo alone, researchers made volunteers rate on a scale of 1 to 4 how much they’d like to go on a date with the person in the photograph. In contrast to many other lab-based experiments on decision making, this exercise wasn’t just academic: Later, the participants attended three real speed-dating events loaded with many of the potential partners seen in the photos. Like a normal speed-dating scenario, volunteers’ contact information was exchanged if both of the people wanted to follow up. (Also like a typical scenario, there weren’t many love connections, says Cooper. When the scientists checked in six weeks later, only a few couples had gone on real dates.) © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012
by Shaoni Bhattacharya Talk about having your cake and eating it. Fasting might not be the only route to a longer life – a hormone seems to work just as well, for mice at least. We know that some animals can extend their lifespan by consuming fewer calories. Engineered mice can get the same effect by simply pumping out high levels of a hormone normally produced during a fast, according to Steven Kliewer and David Mangelsdorf at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Their team found that mice engineered to make higher levels of the hormone, FGF21, increased their lifespan on average by over a third. "What we are seeing is the benefit of caloric restriction without having to diet," he says. Humans have the hormone too, and Kliewer believes FGF21 has the potential to extend the human "health-span" – the time we live healthy lives. The researchers believe FGF21 may act to prolong life by affecting pathways such as the insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) pathway implicated in ageing. "It blocks growth hormones promoting pathways which are associated with diseases, including cancers and metabolic diseases, and as a consequence these animals live longer," says Kliewer. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Caroline Parkinson Health editor, BBC News website The brains of teenage girls with behavioural disorders are different to those of their peers, UK researchers have found. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry study of 40 girls revealed differences in the structure of areas linked to empathy and emotions. Previous work has found similar results in boys. Experts suggest it may be possible to use scans to spot problems early, then offer social or psychological help. An estimated five in every 100 teenagers in the UK are classed as having a conduct disorder. It is a psychiatric condition which leads people to behave in aggressive and anti-social ways, and which can increase the risk of mental and physical health problems in adulthood. Rates have risen significantly among adolescent girls in recent years, while levels in males have remained about the same. In this study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council, UK and Italian researchers conducted brain scans of 22 teenage girls who had conduct disorder and compared them with scans of 20 who did not. BBC © 2012
Researchers in the U.S. have found signs of puberty in American boys up to two years earlier than previously reported — age nine on average for blacks, 10 for whites and Hispanics. Other studies have suggested that girls, too, are entering puberty younger. Why is this happening? Theories range from higher levels of obesity and inactivity to chemicals in food and water, all of which might interfere with normal hormone production. But those are just theories, and they remain unproven. Doctors say earlier puberty is not necessarily cause for concern. And some experts question whether the trend is even real. Boys are more likely than girls to have an underlying physical cause for early puberty.Boys are more likely than girls to have an underlying physical cause for early puberty. (Jennifer DeMonte/Associated Press) Dr. William Adelman, an adolescent medicine specialist in the Baltimore area, says the new research is the first to find early, strong physical evidence that boys are maturing earlier. But he added that the study still isn't proof and said it raises a lot of questions. Earlier research based on 20-year-old national data also suggested a trend toward early puberty in boys, but it was based on less rigorous information. The new study involved testes measurements in more than 4,000 boys. Enlargement of testes is generally the earliest sign of puberty in boys. The study was published online Saturday in Pediatrics to coincide with the American Academy of Pediatrics' national conference in New Orleans. © CBC 2012
By Marcia Malory Ask this question, and you will probably receive one of two responses: Yes. People choose to be gay. They are making an immoral choice, which government should discourage. Or No. Sexual preference is biologically determined. Government should protect gay people from discrimination because homosexuality is an unalterable aspect of their identity. These two answers have something in common: With both of them, the science conveniently supports the moral decision. What if neither answer is right? Perhaps sexual preference can be changed – and people have the right to engage in gay sex and have homosexual relationships if they choose to do so. (The fourth option, that gay people have no choice but to be gay, but should be punished for it anyway, is morally unthinkable.) What does science tell us about sexual preference? We know, from many twin and adoption studies, that sexual preference has a genetic component. A gay man is more likely than a straight man to have a (biological) gay brother; lesbians are more likely than straight women to have gay sisters. In 1993, a study published in the journal Science showed that families with two homosexual brothers were very likely to have certain genetic markers on a region of the X chromosome known as Xq28. This led to media headlines about the possibility of the existence of a “gay gene” and discussions about the ethics of aborting a “gay” fetus. © 2012 Scientific American,
By Tina Hesman Saey New work suggests that a hormone that makes the body think it’s starving could prolong life about as long as severely cutting calories does but without the denial. A hormone called fibroblast growth factor-21, or FGF21, lengthened the lives of mice that had been genetically engineered to constantly produce large amounts of the protein, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas report online October 15 in eLife. The hormone is normally made by the liver during fasting and may tap into some of the same life-extending biochemical processes as does caloric restriction, a proven longevity booster. Caloric restriction — usually defined as cutting calorie intake to 75 to 80 percent of the amount needed to maintain normal body weight, while still maintaining good nutrition — has been shown lengthen life in a wide variety of species, such as fruit flies and dogs. Minimal calorie consumption turns on many different biological processes that slow aging, says Cynthia Kenyon, a developmental biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. The hormone in the study somehow interferes with a chain reaction anchored by insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a process that is also shut down by caloric restriction and thought to be responsible for many of its life-extending effects. In the study, researchers led by UT Southwestern’s David Mangelsdorf and Steven Kliewer genetically engineered mice to constantly make five to 10 times as much FGF21 as normal. These engineered mice lived 30 to 40 percent longer than normal mice on a standard diet. Female mice benefitted from the hormone even more than males; about a third of the FGF21-producing female mice still were alive at 44 months old. Average survival for normal mice in the study was about 28 months. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2012