Chapter 8. Hormones and Sex
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By Diana Kwon Would you rather have $50 now or $100 two weeks from now? Even though the $100 is obviously the better choice, many people will opt for the $50. Both humans and animals show this tendency to place lower value on later rewards, a behavior known as temporal discounting. High rates of temporal discounting can lead to impulsive behavior, and at its worst, too much of this “now bias” is associated with pathological gambling, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and drug addiction. What determines if you’ll be an impulsive decision-maker? New evidence suggests that for women, estrogen levels might be a factor. In a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Charlotte Boettiger and her team at the University of North Carolina revealed that greater increases in estrogen levels across the menstrual cycle led to less impulsive decision making. The researchers tested the “now bias” in 87 women between the ages of 18 and 40 at two different points in their menstrual cycle – in the menstrual phase when estrogen levels are low and the follicular phase when estrogen levels are high. Participants were given a delay-discounting task where they had to choose between two options: a certain sum of money at a later date or a discounted amount immediately (e.g. $100 in one week or $70 today). Subjects showed a greater bias toward the immediate choice during the menstrual phase of the cycle, when estrogen levels were low. Estrogen levels vary between women and can change with factors like stress and age. When the researchers measured amounts of estradiol (the dominant form of estrogen) from the saliva in a subset of the participants at the two points in their menstrual cycles, they found that not all of them showed a detectable increase. Only those with a measureable rise in estradiol showed a significant change in impulsive decision-making. © 2014 Scientific American
The gene that most likely determines the sex of the platypus and echidna has been identified by Australian and Swiss researchers. The study also shows that the Y chromosome, contrary to previous assumptions, carries genes that are important to the basic viability of male mammals, says geneticist Dr Paul Waters from the University of New South Wales. Although the Y chromosome is known to be important in sex determination, little is known about the function and evolution of its genes, says Waters. He says this is because it has so many repetitive and palindromic sequences, which make it hard to reconstruct the true sequences of its genes from fragments of sequenced DNA. Monotremes (the platypus and the echidna), whose males have 5 X chromosomes and 5 Y chromosomes, are especially challenging. "No one had really characterised any Y chromosomes in platypus before because they've got quite a complex sex chromosome system," says Waters. Waters and colleagues from the University of Adelaide and the University of Lausanne now report on their new analysis of male and female DNA from 15 representative mammals, including human, elephants, marsupials and monotremes. The study, reported recently in the journal Nature, is the largest of its kind, and relied on a rapid new sequencing technique. © 2014 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 19582 - Posted: 05.07.2014
Lida Katsimpardi Could the elixir of youth be as simple as a protein found in young blood? In recent years, researchers studying mice found that giving old animals blood from young ones can reverse some signs of aging, and last year one team identified a growth factor in the blood that they think is partly responsible for the anti-aging effect on a specific tissue--the heart. Now that group has shown this same factor can also rejuvenate muscle and the brain. "This is the first demonstration of a rejuvenation factor" that is naturally produced, declines with age, and reverses aging in multiple tissues, says Harvard stem cell researcher Amy Wagers, who led efforts to isolate and study the protein. Independently, another team has found that simply injecting plasma from young mice into old mice can boost learning. The results build on a wave of studies in the last decade in which investigators sewed together the skins of two mice, joining their circulation systems, and studied the effects on various tissues. “It’s still a bit creepy for many people. At meetings, people talk about vampires,” says Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray, who led the study of learning. But he, Wagers, and others think unease will give way to excitement. The new work, he says, “opens the possibility that we can try to isolate additional factors” from blood, “and they have effects on the whole body.” Hope and hype are high in the anti-aging research arena, and other researchers caution that the work is preliminary. “These are exciting papers,” but “it’s a starting point,” says neuroscientist Sally Temple of the Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, NY. Adds Matthew Kaeberlein, a biologist who studies aging at the University of Washington, Seattle, “The therapeutic implications are profound if this mechanism holds true in people.” But that “is the million dollar question here, and that may take some time to figure out.” © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Andy Coghlan A pregnancy hormone could prove a simple way to treat multiple sclerosis, after showing promise in a trial of 158 women with MS. MS is a neurological condition that results from damage to the brain and nerves inflicted by the body's own immune system. It affects 2.3 million people worldwide. Symptoms include extreme tiredness, blurred vision, muscle weakness and problems with balance and movement. The symptoms of women with MS tend to ease when they are pregnant, but worsen again after giving birth. This could be because of a hormone called oestriol, which is only produced in significant amounts during pregnancy. The hormone is thought to help suppress the mother's immune system to prevent it attacking the fetus. Fewer relapses Rhonda Voskuhl of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues wondered whether giving oestriol to people with MS who aren't pregnant might also help with symptoms. They gave 8 milligrams of oestriol daily to 86 women with MS, along with their medication, Copaxone (glatiramer acetate). The women had the most common form of MS, called relapsing-remitting MS, which results in periodic flare-ups of symptoms followed by recovery. After one year, they had 47 per cent fewer relapses than a control group that took Copaxone and a placebo. After two years, the relapse rate was 32 per cent lower than the control group in the group given the hormone, suggesting the effects had plateaued. "We think the oestriol group had bottomed out, and there was nothing left to improve," Voskuhl said, as she presented the preliminary results at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Philadelphia last week. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
by Bethany Brookshire When I was a lab scientist working with mice, I spent hours controlling variables. I stood on precarious chairs to tape tarps over lights to get the light level perfectly right. I made one undergraduate who wore perfume to the lab for animal training wear the same perfume for a whole semester. I was so worried about the mice “recognizing” me over long, overlapping experiments that I did not change the scents of any of my personal care products for nine years. Many of these variables got reported in the methods sections of my papers. “All experiments conducted between 5:00 and 7:00 a.m. Maze dimensions: 4 inches wide, with walls 6 inches tall. Lighting held constant at 10 lux.” All of these variables are reported to allow other people to repeat my experiments, and hopefully get the same result. Now, a new study suggests that maybe I should have included another element in my methods section: “All mice exposed to the scent of a woman.” Jeffrey Mogil’s lab at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, reports April 28 in Nature Methods that mice respond differently to men and women, and that men in fact are a stressful influence. The results show that there’s yet another variable to control when doing sensitive mouse behavioral studies, a variable that could impact fields from pain to depression and beyond. Every department that does animal research has stories about particular experimenters. I recall hearing a story of a lab technician who could get results no one else could, because mice just loved her strawberry-scented hair conditioner. Another colleague told of one experimenter who was so good at handling rats that no one believed her anxiety results. Her rats were just so relaxed. And Mogil’s lab had its own story. In their lab, the presence of human experimenters seemed to stop mice from showing pain. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Humans stink, and it’s wonderful. A few whiffs of a pillow in the morning can revive memories of a lover. The sweaty stench of a gym puts us in the mood to exercise. Odors define us, yet the scientific zeitgeist is that we don’t communicate through pheromones—scents that influence behavior. A new study challenges that thinking, finding that scent can change whether we think someone is masculine or feminine. Humans carry more secretion and sweat glands in their skin than any other primate. Yet 70% of people lack a vomeronasal organ, a crescent-shaped bundle of neurons at the base of each nostril that allows a variety of species—from reptiles to nonprimate mammals—to pick up on pheromones. (If you’ve ever seen your cat huff something, he’s using this organ.) Still, scientists have continued to hunt for examples of pheromones that humans might sense. Two strong candidates are androstadienone (andro) and estratetraenol (estra). Men secrete andro in their sweat and semen, while estra is primarily found in female urine. Researchers have found hints that both trigger arousal—by improving moods and switching on the brain’s “urge” center, the hypothalamus—in the opposite sex. Yet to be true pheromones, these chemicals must shape how people view different genders. That’s exactly what they do, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing report online today in Current Biology. The team split men and women into groups of 24 and then had them watch virtual simulations of a human figure walking (see video). The head, pelvis, and major joints in each figure were replaced with moving dots. Subjects in prior studies had ranked the videos as being feminine or masculine. For instance, watch the figure on the far left, which was gauged as having a quintessential female strut. Notice a distinctive swagger in the “hip” dots and how they contrast with the flat gait of the “male” prototype all the way to the right. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
A UBC neuroscientist says motherhood permanently alters the brain, exposing moms to different health risks than women without children. Liisa Galea, a professor in the university's psychology department, says some changes are temporary while others are permanent. The most obvious example is size. According to Galea, a mother's brain shrinks by up to eight per cent during pregnancy. While it bounces back about six months after birth, she notes the reaction could have repercussions. “Our research shows that, as a result of these transformations, mothers experience different cognitive abilities and health risks than women without children,” said Galea. And she warns that women who’ve borne children may even react to medication differently. “If mothers’ brains are different than other women’s brains, as our research finds, it means we must embrace greater personalization of medical care – not only for men versus women, but even among women with different life experiences,” she said. But that’s a challenge that may be insurmountable given that medical research studies at the animal model level have relied predominantly on the use of male rats. “Why would we assume that what works in a male rat automatically works in a female patient before testing it on a female rat?” questioned Galea. She claims one of the big failures of translational studies is that most fail to acknowledge how subjects’ gender, or other unique characteristics, like motherhood, plays a role. © CBC 2014
By Helen Briggs BBC News A mother's diet around the time of conception can permanently influence her baby's DNA, research suggests. Animal experiments show diet in pregnancy can switch genes on or off, but this is the first human evidence. The research followed women in rural Gambia, where seasonal climate leads to big differences in diet between rainy and dry periods. It emphasises the need for a well-balanced diet before conception and in pregnancy, says a UK/US team. Scientists followed 84 pregnant women who conceived at the peak of the rainy season, and about the same number who conceived at the peak of the dry season. Nutrient levels were measured in blood samples taken from the women; while the DNA of their babies was analysed two to eight months after birth. Lead scientist Dr Branwen Hennig, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said it was the first demonstration in humans that a mother's nutrition at the time of conception can change how her child's genes will be interpreted for life. She told BBC News: "Our results have shown that maternal nutrition pre-conception and in early pregnancy is important and may have implications for health outcomes of the next generation. "Women should have a well-balanced food diet prior to conception and during pregnancy." BBC © 2014
Guys, do you prefer more feminine faces? If so, chances are you grew up in a relatively healthy place. New research suggests that men raised in countries with higher average lifespans and lower child mortality more strongly prefer women with softer features than do men raised in less healthy nations. The finding bolsters the idea that years of human evolution have made men attracted to faces that could help them survive. Previous studies have found that women living in harsher conditions—such as communities with high homicide rates and low income—are more inclined to find more masculine men attractive. Urszula Marcinkowska, a biologist at the University of Turku in Finland, and her colleagues wanted to know whether culture also influenced males’ preferences for females, or whether men judged females in a more universal way. Using an online survey conducted in 16 different languages, the researchers presented 1972 heterosexual males between the ages of 18 and 24 from 28 different countries with 20 pairs of Caucasian female faces. Each pair contained one face with more feminine traits—such as larger eyes, fuller lips, and a less angular jaw—as well as a more androgynous face, with thinner lips and a wider chin. Participants were asked to select which face in each pair they found more sexually attractive. While men across all cultures generally preferred a more feminine face, the strength of that preference varied between countries. The difference couldn’t be explained by the ratio of men to women in a country, its gross national income, or the race of the participants, but it did correlate with the national health index of the men’s countries—a measure of overall well-being. Those from countries like Japan, with high national health index scores, chose the more feminine face more than three-quarters of the time, the authors report online today in Biology Letters. Men from countries such as Nepal, which has a lower health rating, selected the more feminine face in only slightly more than half of the cases, on average. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
THAT health and beauty are linked is not in doubt. But it comes as something of a surprise that who is perceived as beautiful depends not only on the health of the person in question but also on the average level of health in the place where she lives. This, though, is the conclusion of a study just published in Biology Letters by Urszula Marcinkowska of the University of Turku, in Finland, and her colleagues—for Ms Marcinkowska has found that men in healthy countries think women with the most feminine faces are the prettiest whilst those in unhealthy places prefer more masculine-looking ones. Ms Marcinkowska came to this conclusion by showing nearly 2,000 men from 28 countries various versions of the same female faces, modified to look less or more feminine, and thus reflect the effects of different levels of oestrogen and testosterone. Oestrogen promotes features, such as large eyes and full lips, that are characteristically feminine. Testosterone promotes masculine features, such as wide faces and strong chins. As the chart shows, the correlation is remarkable—and statistical analysis shows it is unconnected with a country’s wealth or its ratio of men to women and thus the amount of choice available to men. The cause, though, is unclear. Previous studies have shown that women with feminine features are more fertile. A man’s preference for them is thus likely to enhance his reproductive success. Ms Marcinkowska speculates that testosterone-induced behavioural characteristics like dominance, which might be expected to correlate with masculine-looking faces even in women (they certainly do in men), help in the competition for resources needed to sustain children once they are born. But why that should be particularly important in an unhealthy country is unclear.
Combining the estrogen hormone estriol with Copaxone, a drug indicated for the treatment of patients with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis (MS), may improve symptoms in patients with the disorder, according to preliminary results from a clinical study of 158 patients with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). The findings were presented today by Rhonda Voskuhl, M.D., from the University of California, Los Angeles, at the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health; and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “While these results are encouraging, the results of this Phase II study should be considered preliminary as a larger study would be needed to know whether benefits outweigh the risks for persons affected by MS. At present, we cannot recommend estrogen as part of standard therapy for MS. We encourage patients to talk with their doctors before making any changes to their treatment plans,” said Walter Koroshetz, M.D., deputy director of NINDS. MS is an autoimmune disorder in which immune cells break down myelin, a protective covering that wraps around nerve cells. Loss of myelin results in pain, movement and balance problems as well as changes in cognitive ability. RRMS is the most common form of the disorder. Patients with RRMS experience relapses, or flare-ups, of neurological symptoms, followed by recovery periods during which the symptoms improve.
Jeffrey Mogil’s students suspected there was something fishy going on with their experiments. They were injecting an irritant into the feet of mice to test their pain response, but the rodents didn’t seem to feel anything. “We thought there was something wrong with the injection,” says Mogil, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The real culprit was far more surprising: The mice that didn’t feel pain had been handled by male students. Mogil’s group discovered that this gender distinction alone was enough to throw off their whole experiment—and likely influences the work of other researchers as well. “This is very important work with wide-ranging implications,” says M. Catherine Bushnell, a neuroscientist and the scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) in Bethesda, Maryland, who was not involved in the study. “Many people doing research have never thought of this.” Mogil has studied pain for 25 years. He’s long suspected that lab animals respond differently to the sensation when researchers are present. In 2007, his lab observed that mice spend less time licking a painful injection—a sign that they’re hurting—when a person is nearby, even if that “person” is a cardboard cutout of Paris Hilton. Other scientists began to wonder if their own data were biased by the same effect. “There were whisperings at meetings that this was confounding research results,” Mogil says. So he decided to take a closer look. In the new study, Mogil told the researchers in his lab to inject an inflammatory agent into the foot of a rat or mouse and then take a seat nearby and read a book. A video camera trained on the rodent’s face assessed the animal’s pain level, based on a 0- to 2-point “grimace scale” developed by the team. The results were mixed. Sometimes the animals showed pain when an experimenter was present, and sometimes they seemed just fine. So, on a hunch, Mogil and colleagues recrunched the data, this time controlling for whether a male or a female experimenter was present. “We were stunned by the results,” he says. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The hormone oxytocin appears to increase social behaviors in newborn rhesus monkeys, according to a study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health, the University of Parma in Italy, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The findings indicate that oxytocin is a promising candidate for new treatments for developmental disorders affecting social skills and bonding. Oxytocin, a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, is involved in labor and birth and in the production of breast milk. Studies have shown that oxytocin also plays a role in parental bonding, mating, and in social dynamics. Because of its possible involvement in social encounters, many researchers have suggested that oxytocin might be useful as a treatment for conditions affecting social behaviors, such as autism spectrum disorders. Although oxytocin has been shown to increase certain social behaviors in adults, before the current study it had not been shown to do so in primate infants of any species. Working with infant rhesus monkeys, the NIH researchers found that oxytocin increased two facial gestures associated with social interactions— one used by the monkeys themselves in certain social situations, the other in imitation of their human caregivers. “It was important to test whether oxytocin would promote social behaviors in infants in the same respects as it appears to promote social interaction among adults,” said the study’s first author, Elizabeth A. Simpson, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow of the University of Parma, conducting research in the Comparative Behavioral Genetics Section of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “Our results indicate that oxytocin is a candidate for further studies on treating developmental disorders of social functioning.” The study was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Epigenetics is one of the hottest fields in the life sciences. It’s a phenomenon with wide-ranging, powerful effects on many aspects of biology, and enormous potential in human medicine. As such, its ability to fill in some of the gaps in our scientific knowledge is mentioned everywhere from academic journals to the mainstream media to some of the less scientifically rigorous corners of the Internet. Epigenetics is essentially additional information layered on top of the sequence of letters (strings of molecules called A, C, G, and T) that makes up DNA. If you consider a DNA sequence as the text of an instruction manual that explains how to make a human body, epigenetics is as if someone's taken a pack of highlighters and used different colours to mark up different parts of the text in different ways. For example, someone might use a pink highlighter to mark parts of the text that need to be read the most carefully, and a blue highlighter to mark parts that aren't as important. There are different types of epigenetic marks, and each one tells the proteins in the cell to process those parts of the DNA in certain ways. For example, DNA can be tagged with tiny molecules called methyl groups that stick to some of its C letters. Other tags can be added to proteins called histones that are closely associated with DNA. There are proteins that specifically seek out and bind to these methylated areas, and shut it down so that the genes in that region are inactivated in that cell. So methylation is like a blue highlighter telling the cell "you don't need to know about this section right now." Methyl groups and other small molecular tags can attach to different locations on the histone proteins, each one having a different effect. Some tags in some locations loosen the attachment between the DNA and the histone, making the DNA more accessible to the proteins that are responsible for activating the genes in that region; this is like a pink highlighter telling the cell "hey, this part's important". © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Laura Sanders When a baby cries at night, exhausted parents scramble to figure out why. He’s hungry. Wet. Cold. Lonely. But now, a Harvard scientist offers more sinister explanation: The baby who demands to be breastfed in the middle of the night is preventing his mom from getting pregnant again. This devious intention makes perfect sense, says evolutionary biologist David Haig, who describes his idea in Evolution, Medicine and Public Health. Another baby means having to share mom and dad, so babies are programmed to do all they can to thwart the meeting of sperm and egg, the theory goes. Since babies can’t force birth control pills on their mothers, they work with what they’ve got: Nighttime nursing liaisons keep women from other sorts of liaisons that might lead to another child. And beyond libido-killing interruptions and extreme fatigue, frequent night nursing also delays fertility in nursing women. Infant suckling can lead to hormone changes that put the kibosh on ovulation (though not reliably enough to be a fail-safe birth control method, as many gynecologists caution). Of course, babies don’t have the wherewithal to be interrupting their mothers’ fertility intentionally. It’s just that in our past, babies who cried to be nursed at night had a survival edge, Haig proposes. The timing of night crying seems particularly damning, Haig says. Breastfed babies seem to ramp up their nighttime demands around 6 months of age and then slowly improve — precisely the time when a baby would want to double down on its birth control efforts. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Here to stay. The Y chromosome is small compared with the X, but is required to keep levels of some genes high enough for mammals to survive. The small, stumpy Y chromosome—possessed by male mammals but not females, and often shrugged off as doing little more than determining the sex of a developing fetus—may impact human biology in a big way. Two independent studies have concluded that the sex chromosome, which shrank millions of years ago, retains the handful of genes that it does not by chance, but because they are key to our survival. The findings may also explain differences in disease susceptibility between men and women. “The old textbook description says that once maleness is determined by a few Y chromosome genes and you have gonads, all other sex differences stem from there,” says geneticist Andrew Clark of Cornell University, who was not involved in either study. “These papers open up the door to a much richer and more complex way to think about the Y chromosome.” The sex chromosomes of mammals have evolved over millions of years, originating from two identical chromosomes. Now, males possess one X and one Y chromosome and females have two Xs. The presence or absence of the Y chromosome is what determines sex—the Y chromosome contains several genes key to testes formation. But while the X chromosome has remained large throughout evolution, with about 2000 genes, the Y chromosome lost most of its genetic material early in its evolution; it now retains less than 100 of those original genes. That’s led some scientists to hypothesize that the chromosome is largely indispensable and could shrink away entirely. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 19531 - Posted: 04.24.2014
It takes a lot to deter a male from wanting sex. A new study has found that male mice keep trying to copulate even when they are in pain, whereas females engage in less sex. But when given drugs that target pleasure centers in the human brain, the females again became interested. The findings could shed light on the nature of libido across various animal species. To assess how pain influences sexual desire, researchers first identified pairs of mice that wanted to have sex. “What we found early on was not all mice will mate with each other,” says clinical psychologist Melissa Farmer, who led the study while earning her Ph.D. at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The team set up the rodents on a series of “dates,” during which a male and female were paired together for 30 minutes. Couples that copulated for most of the session were deemed compatible and moved into a cage with separate rooms. A small doorway allowed a female mouse to freely cross over from her chamber, but the male—which is larger—could not. The scientists then induced pain in males or females by applying a small dose of inflammatory compounds to the cheek, tail, foot, or genitals. The sensation would primarily be soreness, like a bad sunburn, says Farmer, who now works at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois. Female mice that were in pain, whether genital or nongenital, spent 50% less time with their male partners, implying a decrease in sexual motivation. Even when they did visit their paramours, females wouldn’t allow males to mount them with the same frequency, the team reports online today in The Journal of Neuroscience. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
|By Daisy Yuhas Strange as it may sound, some scientists suspect that the humble armpit could be sending all kinds of signals from casual flirtation to sounding the alarm. That’s because the body’s secretions, some stinky and others below the threshold your nose can detect, may be rife with chemical messages called pheromones. Yet despite half a century of research into these subtle cues, we have yet to find direct evidence of their existence in humans. Humans and other animals have an olfactory system designed to detect and discriminate between thousands of chemical compounds. For more than 50 years, scientists have been aware of the fact that certain insects and animals can release chemical compounds—often as oils or sweat—and that other creatures can detect and respond to these compounds, which allows for a form of silent, purely chemical communication. Although the exact definition has been debated and redefined several times, pheromones are generally recognized as single or small sets of compounds that transmit signals between organisms of the same species. They are typically just one part of the larger potpourri of odorants emitted from an insect or animal, and some pheromones do not have a discernable scent. Since pheromones were first defined in 1959, scientists have found many examples of pheromonal communication. The most striking of these signals elicits an immediate behavioral response. For example, the female silk moth releases a trail of the molecule bombykol, which unerringly draws males from the moment they encounter it. Slower-acting pheromones can affect the recipient’s reproductive physiology, as when the alpha-farnesene molecule in male mouse urine accelerates puberty in young female mice. © 2014 Scientific American
by Bethany Brookshire Every hipster knows that something is only cool before it becomes popular. There’s no point in liking a band once it hits the big time. That shirt is no good once it’s no longer ironic. And it’s certainly not enough to go clean shaven or grow a short beard — that’s much too mainstream. Recent years have seen a resurgence of moustaches, mutton chops and Fu Manchus. A style that really stands out sticks it to conformity. It turns out that when people buck the facial hair trend, they may end up making themselves more attractive. A new study published April 16 in Biology Letters shows that either clean-shaven or fully bearded looks become more attractive when they are rare in the population. The study suggests that humans may practice what’s called negative frequency-dependent selection — people rate rare looks as more attractive than they might otherwise. But when we try to figure out why, the interpretations can get pretty hairy. In every population, there is variation, both in genetics and in how individuals look. But at first blush, this variation doesn’t make a lot of sense. If one particular look is the most attractive and best for the population, sexual selection should make a species converge on a single, popular look. For example, if the best male guppies have stripes, soon all male guppies will have stripes, as females will only mate with stripey males. But in nature, this is clearly not the case. Guppies come in a wild variety of patterns, and so do humans. In guppies, this variation is a result of negative frequency-dependent selection: Female guppies prefer male guppies that look unusual compared to others, rather than guppies that share common features. This helps keep looks and genes variable, a distinct advantage for the species. So an individual guppy’s attractiveness doesn’t just depend on his shining character, it depends on how rare his looks are in relation to other guppies. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013
Scientists haven’t pinpointed a definitive cause for Alzheimer’s disease—a fatal brain disorder that robs people of their memory and cognitive abilities. But now researchers have uncovered an intriguing clue about why more women than men develop the condition. A particular gene variant, found in a quarter of the population and long known to raise people’s risk for the disease, seems less menacing in men, new research shows. The findings could have implications for potential gender-specific treatments, some Alzheimer’s investigators suggest. Though a small percentage of Alzheimer’s cases arise from genetic mutations that cause obvious disease before the age of 65, the vast majority of people who develop the condition do so later in life from undefined triggers, some thought to be genetic. In 1993, scientists found that people who inherit a gene variant called apolipoprotein E4 (APOE4) are more prone to the common form of Alzheimer’s that strikes in late life. There’s also a “risk-neutral” variant (APOE3) and a much rarer version of the gene (APOE2) that decreases a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s. Shortly thereafter, other research groups replicated the finding and some data hinted that APOE4 raises Alzheimer’s risk more in women than in men. Indeed, when scientists combed through a massive data set containing 5930 Alzheimer’s patients and 8607 dementia-free elderly from 40 independent studies, they reported in 1997 that females with the APOE4 variant were four times more likely to have Alzheimer’s compared with people with the more common, neutral form of the gene. However, in men, APOE4 seemed virtually harmless. “It was a pretty big effect,” says Michael Greicius, a neurologist at Stanford University Medical Center in California, of the analysis. Yet the findings didn’t create much of a stir at the time. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science