A couple cups of coffee a day may help keep the blues away. A large epidemiological study of 50,000 women published yesterday in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that subjects who drink two or more cups of coffee on a daily basis were slightly less likely to be diagnosed with depression over a 10-year span compared to their less-caffeinated peers. Women who drank two to three cups of coffee were 15 percent less likely to be treated for the blues; those who drank four or more had a 20 percent lower risk.
Researchers have identified 30 genes that play a role in the onset of menstruation in girls. Some of these puberty genes have previously been linked to body weight and fat metabolism, strengthening the connection between the obesity epidemic and the early onset of puberty in industrialized nations.
For the study, published in Nature Genetics, researchers analyzed 32 genome-wide association studies that included more than 87,000 women from the United States, Europe and Australia, and then replicated the results in a further 14,000 women. Of the 30 genes that they found play a role in the timing of women’s first periods, four genes are linked to body mass index, three play a role in metabolism, and three are involved in hormone regulation.
Study co-author, Dr Enda Byrne of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research says the results from this study show that many of the genes that increase risk for weight gain and obesity in adulthood, also influence the onset of puberty. “This supports the idea that the body launches into puberty once it reaches a certain level of nutrient stores and therefore children who are overweight are more likely to undergo early puberty,” says Byrne. [Australian Broadcasting Corporation]
Girls around the country are starting puberty ever younger, says a new study out in Pediatrics.
Researchers led by Frank Biro studied more than a thousand girls between six and eight years old from New York, Cincinnati, and San Francisco. Their findings: By the age of 7, about 23 percent of black girls, 15 percent of Hispanic girls, and 11 percent of white girls showed enough breast development to be considered pubescent. Those numbers are even more extreme than the findings of a similar 1997 study that seemed to show the age entering puberty was dropping fast.
“In 1997, people said, ‘That can’t be right; there must be something wrong with the study’. But the average age is going down even further” [Los Angeles Times].
The starkness of Biro’s statistics has drawn plenty of attention. But just what it means is a difficult question, because there’s no “ideal” age for entering puberty.
High heel wearers likely guessed it: Walking around on your tiptoes isn’t great for your calf muscles. Researchers looking at leg sonograms of women who frequently wear 2-inch or higher heels found that these women had calf muscle fibers that were an average of 13 percent shorter than their flat-wearing counterparts.
The small study, published yesterday in the Journal of Experimental Biology, has given some credence to complaints of lasting pain even after the pumps come off.
Anecdotally it has long been said that regularly wearing high heels shortens the calf muscle. Study leader Professor Marco Narici, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said in the 1950s secretaries who wore high heels complained that they struggled to walk flat-footed when they took their shoes off. [BBC]
In a development that’s certain to stir passions in the abortion debate, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK published a report today on “fetal awareness.” The group states, citing a review of current research, that human fetuses cannot feel pain before 24 weeks.
The group’s reasoning, as described in a press release, is based on these points:
-The fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks because the connections in the fetal brain are not fully formed
-The fetus, while in the chemical environment of the womb, is in a state of induced sleep and is unconscious
-Because the 24 week-old fetus has no awareness nor can it feel pain, the use of analgesia is of no benefit
-More research is needed into the short and long-term effects of the use of fetal analgesia post-24 weeks [Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists]
This is certainly not the first debate over whether a fetus can feel pain. Fetal surgeries have led doctors to ask this question, as they determined whether anesthesia was appropriate and at what stage in development. As summarized in a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, researchers have looked at fetal flinch responses, heart rate, and levels of stress hormones. But any metric has remained controversial. Take stress hormones, for example. Do you say that any fetus that can release these hormones feels pain? Or do you wait until it develops the nervous system to register those hormones? Or do you say that an undeveloped nervous system makes the fetus more susceptible to pain, since it hasn’t developed the system to suppress it?
British doctors claim to have made an important step toward completing the first womb transplant. They say they have solved the problem of keeping the blood flowing to the transplanted uterus so that a pregnancy can be carried to term in the recipient. Womb transplants, if proven successful in humans, would offer an alternative to surrogacy or adoption for women whose own wombs have been damaged by diseases such as cervical cancer. Around 15,000 women of childbearing age are currently living with a womb that does not work or were born without one [Guardian]. The research was presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference in Atlanta.
However, the technique has only been demonstrated in rabbits, a far cry from successfully completing a womb transplant in humans. Using a “vascular patch technique” major blood vessels including the aorta were connected. Two of the five rabbits lived to 10 months and dissection after death showed the womb had stayed healthy [BBC News]. The research team has yet to show that the new wombs can actually support a pregnancy, which leaves some scientists skeptical that the procedure is actually an advancement.
Ethicists, medics and feminists have long argued as to whether infertility is a disease or a cultural phenomenon born of a society where women feel they have no value if they cannot reproduce. But illness or otherwise, it is not a fatal disease, and the suggestion that women could undergo major transplant surgery to fulfill their desire for a child may prompt unease [BBC News]. A woman who received the transplant would have to take drugs to suppress her immune system to prevent her body from rejecting the foreign organ. To avoid taking the drugs for life, the uterus would likely be removed again after the desired babies had been born.
80beats: Are Birth Control Pills Changing the Mating Game?
80beats: The Woman of Tomorrow: Shorter, Plumper, & More Fertile
80beats: Is It Ethical to Pay Women to Donate Eggs for Medical Research?
Look into the future and see the women of tomorrow! A new study predicts that future women will be a tad shorter, heavier, and more fertile—that is, if the women who are currently most successful at producing children are any indication. The team studied 2238 women who had passed menopause and so completed their reproductive lives…[and] tested whether a woman’s height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol or other traits correlated with the number of children she had borne. They controlled for changes due to social and cultural factors to calculate how strongly natural selection is shaping these traits [New Scientist].
Their results show that shorter, heavier women tend to have more children, as do women with lower blood pressure and cholesterol. If the mothers pass on these traits for 10 generations, the average woman in 2409 will be 2 centimetres shorter and 1 kilogram [about 2 pounds] heavier than she is today. She will bear her first child about 5 months earlier and enter menopause 10 months later [New Scientist]. A two-centimeter decrease over 400 years may be a modest change, but the researchers say it’s evolution in action. The study will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In very rare cases, the womb is a dangerous place for a developing fetus. Researchers have found that pregnant women can pass on cancer cells to their unborn babies, if those cancer cells carry a particular genetic mutation. The new study resolves a longstanding puzzle, because in theory any cancer cells that manage to cross the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream should be targeted for destruction by the child’s immune system. But there are records of 17 cases of a mother and baby appearing to share the same cancer – usually leukaemia or melanoma [BBC News].
In the study, which will be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used a genetic “fingerprinting” technique to match the cancer cells found in a mother and baby. The case, involving a Japanese mother aged 28 and her daughter, revealed that both patients’ leukaemic cells carried the identical mutated cancer gene BCR-ABL1 even though the infant had not inherited this gene [The Times]. This meant that the child, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11 months, could not have developed leukemia independently.
Two researchers have reviewed the body of research on the effects of birth control pills on both women and men’s perceptions of attractiveness, and have come to some provocative conclusions. Women on the pill are less attracted to hyper-masculine men, they found, and don’t show the typical propensity towards men who are genetically dissimilar from themselves. In addition, women on the pill may lack the attractiveness edge that’s associated with ovulation, the study found.
An alarmist, tabloid-esque summary of the findings might read like this: Pill-taking women aren’t hotties, and they pick girlie men who are likely to give them ugly babies. But of course, there’s a lot more complexity to the findings. The contraceptive pill alters monthly fluctuations in hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, mimicking the more stable hormonal conditions associated with pregnancy [New Scientist]. While mounting evidence suggests that having one’s hormonal levels smoothed out in this way alters some of the laws of attraction between men and women, scientists hasten to add that hormones aren’t everything.
The new study (pdf), published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, looked first at research that’s been conducted on women’s preferences for men. Women who aren’t on the pill have shown a preference for certain types of men while they’re ovulating: they prefer men with more traditionally masculine facial features, and have also been shown to prefer the smell of men who are genetically dissimilar (which in humanity’s earlier days, when inbreeding was a danger, would have been an advantage). Women on the pill don’t show these same preferences. But many would argue that personality is a far better way to choose a life partner than what they smell like. One recent study involving speed-dating experiments suggested that although women might say they prefer the scent of men with dissimilar immune systems, this doesn’t correspond with the men they actually chose to go out with [New Scientist].
As the nation prepares for a massive vaccination campaign to protect the most vulnerable people from the swine flu virus, scientists are preparing to combat public fears over the vaccine. Scientists worry that the public (or at least the activists who are convinced, against all scientific evidence, that vaccines cause autism and other diseases) will misinterpret coincidental deaths as side effects of the vaccine.
As soon as swine flu vaccinations start next month, some people getting them will drop dead of heart attacks or strokes, some children will have seizures and some pregnant women will miscarry…. “There are about 2,400 miscarriages a day in the U.S…. You’ll see things that would have happened anyway. But the vaccine doesn’t cause miscarriages. It also doesn’t cause auto accidents, but they happen” [The New York Times], says Jay Butler of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC is particularly focused on convincing pregnant women of the vaccine’s safety. A recent study in The Lancet reported strikingly high rates of death and of complications like pneumonia in pregnant women with H1N1 influenza. Pregnancy meant a fourfold risk of hospitalization, sometimes with a tragic outcome [The New York Times]. Experts note that pregnant women often avoid medications out of fear of harming the fetus, but say that these women should be among the first to get vaccinated for swine flu, and should swiftly start antiviral medications if they come down with the virus. To date, the virus has killed 28 pregnant women in the United States.