Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

IQ and Fish, the Whole Fish, and Nothing But the Fish

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science, Sweeter Babies by jenapincott on August 30, 2011

For the nine-plus months of pregnancy, I dutifully downed fish oil pills. I had heard all about the virtues of essential fatty acids (especially DHA, docosahexaenoic acid), known collectively as omega-3s, which are found in fish such as salmon and sardines. These fats are involved in the development of new neurons and help form the cell walls — the structural support — of nerve cells. If the healthy brain is like a sponge, then the brain deprived of omega-3 is like a puddle.

Several years ago, in 2007, an enormous study funded by the National Institute of Health looked at the link between children’s scores on aptitude tests (at ages 6 months to 8 years) and their mother’s prenatal consumption of fish. It turned out that the kids whose moms ate fish more than twice weekly during pregnancy were significantly less likely to have low scores on cognitive tests. Low maternal seafood intake (two or fewer servings weekly) was also associated with increased risk of suboptimum outcomes for prosocial behavior, fine motor, communication, and social development scores. This was a huge deal. The nearly 12,000 expectant women who participated in the study were asked to record how much whole fish they ate, not fish oil supplements.

Naturally, this study — and smaller studies like it involving whole-fish consumption — inspired millions of pregnant women to focus on fish oil.

Problem is, not many of us want to or can afford to eat fish every day. Fears of mercury and PCB contamination are valid (many varieties of fish, such as tuna, have high levels that are toxic to fetuses). It’s not much of a stretch to say that fish oil pills are a better way to get your daily DHA.

But here’s the interesting part. Everyone has assumed that when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids like DHA, the source — whole fish or fish oil pills –shouldn’t matter.  Seems reasonable, but is it?

A few very recent fish oil studies cast doubt:

Results of fish oil pill supplementation range from neutral to negative…

A review of six clinical trials (1280 women in total) involving fish oil pill supplementation during breastfeeding found no significant difference in children’s neurodevelopment: language development (intelligence or problem-solving ability, psychomotor development, motor development. In child attention there was a significant difference. For child visual acuity there was no significant difference.  For language development at 12 to 24 months and at five years in child attention, weak evidence was found (one study) favouring the supplementation.

• At the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, researchers tracked the children of 2400 women who took DHA-rich fish oil pills in the last trimester of pregnancy. The use of these fish oil capsules compared with vegetable oil cap- sules during pregnancy did not result in improved cognitive and language development in their offspring during early childhood.

Other fish oil pill studies found disturbingly negative results:

• At the Universities of Copenhagen and Chapel Hill, researchers followed 120 Danish women who nursed their babies for four months after birth and took fish oil supplements (or olive oil pills). The children were tested in intervals up to seven years. The higher the early intake, the lower the child scored in speed of information processing, inhibitory control, and working memory tests. Boys whose mothers consumed fish oil had lower prosocial scores relative to the olive oil group.

Meanwhile, these recent studies strengthened the evidence that eating fish is brain-boosting:

• In a study that took place the Arctic, 154 11-year-old Inuit children took standardized tests for memory and verbal learning. Their scores were compared with their levels of DHA present in their cord blood at birth. Children who had higher cord plasma concentrations of DHA at birth achieved significantly higher scores on tests related to recognition memory processing. The source of DH in their mothers’ diets was fish and marine mammals. Intriguingly, the connection with higher test scores remained intact regardless of seafood-contaminant (PCB and mercury) amounts.

* A UK study of 217 nine-year-olds whose mothers had eaten oily fish in early pregnancy had a reduced risk of hyperactivity and children whose mothers had eaten fish (whether oily or non-oily) in late pregnancy had a verbal IQ that was 7.55 points higher than those whose mothers did not eat fish.

This is what I’d love to see: large studies that compare pregnant/nursing fish-eaters versus pill-poppers. Few researchers have tackled this, in part because we assume DHA works the same no matter how we get it, and because DHA from sources other than pills is difficult to measure or isolate.  Interestingly,  a study at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health compared height, weight and head circumference results of newborns whose mothers whose main source of DHA was fish versus pills.  They found that fish-eaters generally gave birth to larger babies while fish-oil-pill-poppers had newborns with a smaller head circumference.

Is it possible that fish consumption boosts IQ, but fish oil pills do not?

It’s dumbfounding, the difference in results between whole fish and fish oil. The researchers that found negative results of supplementation on nursing infants speculated on what goes wrong. It may be that early intervention with fish oil pills results in an “environmental mismatch” between prenatal and postnatal life,” (e.g. the fetus is “programmed” in the womb to live in an environment without abundant DHA and is thrown off when inundated with these fats later on).

Another theory is that the timing in these recent fish oil pill studies is off. The critical period in which fish oil may influence brain growth may be in the first trimester of pregnancy or toward the end of the first year of life — not during the time periods in which women in these studies were taking fish oil pills. It may be that DHA has a “sweet spot” — an optimum level below and above which may be detrimental to the developing brain. Indeed, when researchers look at fish oil pill supplementation and DHA-deficient premature infants, the results are much rosier.

There’s another compelling explanation of why fish oil pills don’t yield the desired results: DHA doesn’t do its magic alone. Nutrients and proteins in fish and seafood, other than DHA, may be  brain-boosters — or at least help us (and our fetuses or babies) to absorb or metabolize DHA better. All the fish oil in the sea can’t compensate for a bad diet.

In the US, a federal advisory recommends that pregnant women not eat more than two servings of fish weekly. This advice may be misguided given that fish such as salmon and sardines are high in DHA but low in mercury. Pop fish oil pills instead; they’re just as good– that’s been the message. But these recent studies point to a different truth.

Thus the case for fish, the whole fish, and nothing but the fish.

Food for thought.

*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. 

 

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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 August 4, 2011

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

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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. 

 

 

Where Do Demanding, Unweanable Babies Come From?

Posted in news, parenting, pregnancy, psychology, science by jenapincott on May 24, 2011

A season ago, when my daughter reached the six-month mark, her pediatrician told us to introduce her to a new food every few days and see what she likes. It wasn’t time to wean her, but soon it will be, and supplementation should help the transition. So I lovingly shopped for organic fruits and vegetables: apples, bananas, avocados, peas, and so on. I presented them passively — as items for her to experiment withon her placemat — and actively, by making mmmms, playing airplane, and swallowing the goop and showing her my tongue.

Three months later, we’ve made astonishingly little progress on the solids front. At best, the infant deigns to nibble delicately on peas and lentils. She’ll squish the bits of mango and avocado on her plate and drop them on the floor. She’ll taste a food then whip her head to the other side and bat away the spoon. She wrinkles her nose.

All she really wants to do is nurse. Baby loves to nurse. She cries and cries in the wee hours of the morning because she wants to nurse. She is tall and heavy for her age.

Who’s to blame (at least in part) for her unweanable stubbornness?

Her dad. 

It’s not only convenient to blame the father for babies who won’t give up nursing, It’s scientific.  There’s evidence.    

Here’s how it works, according to a new study Bernard Crespi, an evolutionary biologist at Simon Fraser University.  How much and how long a baby nurses depends in part on her genes. The genes she inherits from her father have an ulterior motive.  Paternal genes want the baby to extract as much as possible from the mother.

Paternal genes are thought to influence:

  • suckling strength  (so the baby extracts as much milk as she can)
  • tongue size (a larger tongue is a better suction pump)
  • crying  (for maternal attention and food)
  • appetite and speed of eating
  • duration of breastfeeding before weaning
  • night-time suckling (results in suppression of periods, which helps delay future pregnancies/siblings)

The genes that influence these behaviors are active only when they come from the dad. This is called genetic imprinting — when only the genes from one parent are expressed. Dad’s genes strongly affect the intensity of infant behavior.  Only a tiny percentage of human genes are imprinted. 

Dad’s genes are greedy for a good reason. From a biological perspective he has nothing to lose by making sure this particular offspring who carries his genes demands a lot of her mom — including suckling often, crying a lot, and taking a long time to wean. This behavior may be essential to a child’s survival in a setting in which resources are limited. “Weaning” genes have been shaped this way under evolutionary pressure in a premonogamous era.

Mom’s genes, meanwhile, are more moderate.  They want the child to survive but dial back the feed controls. They’d prefer for a baby to self-feed and start solids sooner. Mom’s genes push moderation to save resources (time and energy) for her other (or future) offspring. When paternal genes are disabled and maternal genes are active, babies have Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition that manifests as inability to latch and suckle effectively, complacency, and lack of crying or other solicitation for food.  These infants wean early because they never really nurse. They fail to thrive.

Demanding, unweanable infants come from dads. At a minimum, paternal genes play a real role in their aggressive eating, crying, and nursing behaviors.  

Now that they’re outed, perhaps guilty fathers should be the ones to work the night shift and scrape  food off the floor?

How big is your limbal ring?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on April 30, 2011

Of all the qualities that give an attractive person an edge, here’s one you’ve likely overseen:  the limbal ring,  the dark circle around iris.  The limbal ring is the line that separates the colored part of the eye from the white (the sclera).   

It’s completely unconscious, the way we all judge others’ limbal rings. In the 20 milliseconds or so it takes to assess a person’s attractiveness, you’re factoring in the size and shade of the limbal rings. The bigger and blacker they are, the more attractive the eyes. People with the prettiest eyes have the most prominent limbal rings.  

This, anyhow, is the upshot of a recent study by Darren Peshek and his colleagues at the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine. The researchers showed volunteers eighty pairs of male and female faces.  Each pair of faces was identical except the eyes: one had dark limbal rings and the other had no limbal rings.  The volunteers were asked to pick which face was more attractive and to indicate their degree of preference.

Men thought women with the dark limbal rings were more attractive than those without, and women thought the same of men with dark limbal rings.  Men and women also judged faces of the same sex as more attractive when the limbal rings were large.

Looking into my baby daughter’s eyes, I see the blue of her iris is framed by a thick black limbal ring.  The contrast makes the white of her eyes so white they look blue. The very young have the thickest, darkest limbal rings.

Which is exactly the point.  The limbal ring serves as an honest signal of youth and health-desirable qualities, reproductively speaking. The ring fades with age and with medical problems.  It’s thickest from infancy through the early twenties.  A thick, dark limbal ring may make us appear younger.  It makes the whites of the eyes whiter.  This might be why so many people think light eyes are so sexy:  the limbal ring, when present, shows up more.  

There are so many ways to fake the appearance of youth. You can wear makeup and wigs and get tummy tucks, plastic surgery, Botox, and boob jobs.

But a fake limbal ring?

Yes, this too. Long ago, Japanese schoolgirls discovered the edge a limbal ring can give you by wearing “limbal ring” contact lenses. They make the eye look bigger and more defined. And while you’re eyeing these contacts, you might as well buy a set that expands your pupils too. Big, dark, dilated pupils signal emotional arousal. They, too, act on the unconscious favorably.

The limbal ring is well-named. Limbis means border or edge, and it’s related to limbic, meaning emotion or drives. The limbal ring, seen from inches away, is an intimacy zone. Don’t flirt until you see the whites of their eyes.

Why are Men Mad About Mammaries?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on April 3, 2011

Why do men love breasts?

Let me count the theories:

1. Freudian (breasts remind men of their moms and the nurturing of childhood)
2. Evolutionary (breasts resemble buttocks, and prehuman ancestors always mounted from behind)
3. Reproductive (breasts are an indicator of age, and big breasts in particular are a marker of high estrogen levels, associated with fertility).

Do these reasons sufficiently explain why breasts are beloved — even in cultures that don’t eroticize them any more than the face?

If not, here’s another:

Breasts facilitate “pair-bonding” between couples. Men evolved to love breasts because women are likelier to have sex with — and/or become attached to — lovers who handle their breasts.

This idea came up in New York Times journalist John Tierney’s interview with Larry Young, a neuroscientist famous for his research on monogamy. According to Young, “[M]ore attention to breasts could help build long-term bonds through a ‘cocktail of ancient neuropeptides,’ like the oxytocin released during foreplay or orgasm.”

The same oxytocin circuit, he notes, is activated when a woman nurses her infant.

When women’s breasts are suckled, as they are during breastfeeding, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin makes the mother feel good and helps her bond with her baby. She feels loving and attached. The same reaction might happen if a man sucks and caresses a woman’s breasts during foreplay. In our ancestral past, the most titillated men may have been the ones to attract and retain mates and pass on their genes.

The “boobs-help-bonding” theory may not be the strongest explanation of why men love breasts, but it’s worth introducing to the debate. That said, there are many ladies out there for whom a lover’s suckling does nothing — and there are many breast-ogling boobs who know nothing of foreplay.

What Singles Can Learn from Baby Talk

Posted in news, psychology, science by jenapincott on March 28, 2011

When you become a new parent you get a lot of advice on how to connect with your infant. To win her over, you’re told, talk the way she talks.  If Baby says “bah-bah-bah,” you say, “bah-bah-bah” back. You can make your “bah” sound like a real word by saying BAH-tel” or “BAH-th.” The content doesn’t really matter.  You just need make sure you sound like her.  Researchers call this “language style matching.” It draws the infant in and helps her connect with you. Experts can predict a baby’s attachment to her mother by how much they bah-bah back and forth during baby talk.

            Singles seeking love and connection can learn from this, according to a new study led by James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin, and their colleagues at Northwestern University.  What the psychologists investigated is whether people on a first date who use similar words hit it off better than those who don’t.  Could language style predict whether you and your date will decide to see each other again and even have a strong and stable relationship eventually?

            To find out, the researchers recorded college students on speed dates. Thrown together for four-minute pairings, the men and women warmed up by asking each other the usual questions:  Where are you from?  What’s your major? How do you like college?

 Using a computer algorithm to analyze the speed-daters’ conversations, Pennebaker and Ireland found that men and women that wanted to see each other again matched each other’s function words significantly more often than those that had no interest in each other. Function words are like glue. They are not nouns or words; rather, they show how those words relate.  They are words like the, a, be, anything, that, will, him, and well. They are the yeses and okays and the pauses and interjections between words. They are the ifs, ands, and buts. By themselves they don’t sound like much, but they set a mood.

            The more a couple’s language styles matched, especially the function words, the likelier they were to hit it off. Couple whose speaking styles were in sync more than average were nearly four times as likely to desire a second date as those that were not.  About 77 percent of similar-sounding speed-daters desired a second date compared to only about half the dissimilar speakers.  Similar-speakers were also significantly more likely to be dating three months later.

            Language style matching is usually unconscious, according to the researchers.  It’s verbal body language.  Just as couples on the most successful dates make more eye contact, lean in toward one another, and otherwise echo each other’s body movements, they also echo each other’s choice of words.  We put ourselves in sync with people with whom we want to get close and stay close. 

Pennebaker and his team also used the alogrithm to test written correspondence for language style, and found that couples who had been dating a year or more were likelier to stay together if their writing styles in text messages matched. 

You can predict if you and your date or partner are in sync by taking Pennebakers’s online test at http://www.utpsyc.org/synch/.   Enter your and your love’s email or text correspondence and you’ll get a number that assesses how much your language matches up — which in turn may predict how well your relationship will hold up.

**
If you and your partner use actual baby talk to communicate — that is, speaking in a high-pitched voice with elongated syllables to your ickle-bitty-peshus wuv –you may have an especially healthy long-term relationship. According to a study by researchers Meredith Bombar and Lawrence Littig, baby talk helps lovers enhance feelings of mutual intimacy and attachment to each other.  Compared to other couples, babytalkers are more secure and less avoidant in romantic relationships.

Why?  In effect, baby talk, when mutual, is not only a form of language style matching but also a way to reactivate primal circuits of attachment. It taps into the unconditional love of a parent for child.

The old “play” circuits are activated; as in any form of fantasy, baby talk allows a couple to step outside the limits of self, space, and time. Stress is reduced — the same reason why a recent study on light S&M found that couples who spank together stay together. Babytalking lovers get a blast of dopamine and oxytocin in areas of the brain involved in reward and bonding — the ventral tegmental area, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.

Mutual use of high-pitched voices, soothing whispers, cooing, lisping, and making expressive faces is also a way of “looping” or “mirroring” affection. Along with the other bonding benefits, baby talk may be a way of flaunting one’s healthy emotional neural circuitry — suggesting not only love and commitment but also strong nurturing instincts.

Do babytalking couples make better parents?  Who knows — but secure, loving, long-term ones do.

Do baby tears have mind-control properties?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on March 8, 2011

A few weeks ago, Israeli neuroscientists Shani Gelstein and Noam Sobel published a study about mind-control properties in human tears. The gist of the research, which enjoyed much media attention, is that women’s tears contain a chemical signal that reduces sexual desire in men. Tears were collected from the cheeks of emotionally-distraught women watching sad films and wiped on the upper lips of male volunteers. Compared to men who whiffed a salt solution control, the tear-sniffers not only had a reduced sex drive but also lower testosterone levels and reduced brain activity.

A leading explanation is that chemicals in tears generally reduce male aggression, making them more sympathetic.

How does this work? One theory is that one or more of the hundreds of chemicals in tears has “mind-control” properties, triggering specific predictable behaviors in others. (Here and here I write about how this happens in sweat, too.) One candidate is prolactin, a hormone associated with bonding. When inhaled in a person’s tears, prolactin may affect the sniffer’s hypothalamus, the part of the brain that produces hormones which in turn affect behavior.

Baby tears have not been the subject of a study yet (hopefully soon). But it’s not a far cry from certain that if there are chemicals in the tears of women that affect men, there are also chemical triggers in the tears of babies that affect their caregivers or anyone else that comes into contact with them. These tears may trigger care-giving instincts and reduce aggression toward the screaming infant.

I wonder: Infant abuse is relatively uncommon given how irritating a screaming baby can be. Are the people guilty of this crime more likely to be amnosiacs (loss of smell-sense) or have another form of brain damage that would prevent them from inhaling aggression-reducing signals in the baby’s tears?

Another theory: Kids cry all the time and sometimes it’s hard to tell when they really need attention. Might chemicals in emotional tears direct parents to respond appropriately when there is a real need for attention? Assume these chemical signals are only in emotional tears–not crocodile tears or sleepy-time tears. Do they help us intuitively know when it’s OK to let a child cry it out instead of rushing to soothe her?

What your date’s fingerprints reveal

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on February 6, 2011

Not long ago, people everywhere started to do the “finger game” on a first date. This is not as naughty as it sounds. As I describe in BLONDES, the finger game involves asking your companion for a look at his (or her) right hand. If his ring finger is longer than his index finger it’s a sign of prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone. People with longer ring (than index) fingers are likelier to be more aggressive, better at sports, and more musically inclined. They may have more sex partners in life.

Now you can take the game to the next level: fingerprints.

Take a close look at the ridges on your companion’s fingers. (Actually, they’re best seen under a magnifying lens or photocopied and enlarged.) Most people have slightly more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other.

More ridges on the right-hand fingers: This indicates higher levels of prenatal testosterone. He or she might master mental rotation – knowing which one of four abstract figures, revolved in three-dimensional mindspace, matches a diagram (a “masculine” task). Right-ridge dominant people are also better at aiming at a target and getting a bull’s eye.

More ridges on the left-hand fingers:
This indicates lower levels of prenatal exposure. He or she may be a whiz at games like word associations, taking a word like clear and coming up with glass then Philip then opera then ghost, or naming as many round objects as she can in three minutes (considered “feminine” tasks). Compared to straight men, gay men have more ridges on their left pinkies and thumbs.

Four or more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other: This reflects how much stress your companion weathered when he or she was a second-trimester fetus. For instance, researchers found that women who were 14-22 weeks pregnant when an epic ice storm hit Canada were more likely to have babies whose ridge counts varied greatly between hands. In nature, dramatic asymmetry is often a sign that the fetus has been stressed in some way. The more stress, the less symmetry. In fact, those with significantly asymmetric ridge counts between right and left hands were more likely to score lower in language and intellectual development as toddlers. Both fingerprint development and the brain may have been affected by constriction of blood flow to the placenta or stress hormone levels.

Other ridge count studies have also found interesting correlations: a significant difference between the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand is associated with less muscle mass in the lower extremities and a bulked-up upper body, including a thicker waist. A difference of around three or four more ridges between the thumb and pinky fingers is also associated with diabetes later in life. Asymmetries are also connected to cleft lip, dyslexia, schizophrenia, infections, and other prenatal problems.

Around ten weeks after conception is when the bottom (basal) layer of fetal skin outgrows the top (epidermis), and the tension between the two causes the skin to buckle. At this time fingerprints are like wet cement: any disturbance until mid- pregnancy may leave a lifelong impression. At this time the skin and the brain are both are made of the same raw material — fetal ectodermal tissue. Any disruptive event in the womb left its mark on both. This means that fingerprints give us clues about the brain.

You would like to know more about the minds of the people you date, which is why you’re analyzing their fingers. Of course if you could read their minds, you’d know they think you’re crazy.

Do more babies come out on a full moon?

Posted in news, pregnancy, science by jenapincott on January 12, 2011

Nature still has a subconscious sway over us, and labor brings out the inner animal. We know that circadian rhythms of night and day affect hormone levels, which in turn may trigger contractions. So it doesn’t surprise me when I hear midwives, nurses, and even doctors insist that more births occur on a full moon.

Their logic seems grounded: a full moon has a gravitational pull on amniotic fluid, just as it has on any other body of water. The pressure causes the sac to break, thereby triggering labor.

I’m not the only one who wanted to put this theory to the test. There are over a dozen studies published on labor and la lune (including here and here), totaling hundreds of thousands of spontaneous, non-induced births and hundreds of lunar cycles.

Alas, none have found any significant differences in the frequency of births, route of delivery, preterm delivery dates, or birth complications across the eight phases of the moon (or, for that matter, the weather). It’s a myth, albeit one that has only waxed and never waned – perhaps superstition causes us to see patterns where there are none.

I also found studies that show that contrary to common belief, psychiatric wards are not any busier during full moons than maternity wards. The moon doesn’t make us loonier or more likely to deliver. We do both all on our own.

あなたがその人を捕まえたいと思ったら?

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 22, 2010

BLONDES — now in Japanese!

Would you eat your baby’s placenta?

Posted in news, polls, Polls and Surveys, pregnancy, science by jenapincott on November 14, 2010

“You’ve never seen a mother cat with postpartum depression, right?” a woman in my prenatal yoga class asked me. She had a challenging look in her eyes. Before I could respond she rushed to her punchline. “It’s because cats eat their placentas.”

The woman introduced herself as a doula-in-training who prepares placenta on the side. She thought I might be interested.

I learned that placentophagy, the act of eating the afterbirth, is common among other mammals. Animals probably eat it for the extra iron and other nutrients, to detract predators, or possibly to alleviate pain (not to thwart the kitty blues). My fellow yogi is among the small but passionate population of birthing specialists who believe that women should eat their placentas, too — especially to ward off postpartum depression. The placenta is rich in hormones: progesterone, estrogen, cortisol, and others. These hormones originate in the placenta, which means a woman’s levels take a plunge immediately after she gives birth. One theory of why women get depressed after birth is their hormone levels are low. Eating the placenta, it seems, could raise hormone levels enough to ward off depression.

I once bought a placental cream in New Zealand, and the hormones in it made my face break out in violent pustules. That doesn’t make me want to eat the stuff.

“It’s spongy like liver,” the woman said, going for the hard sell. She could use it in lieu of meat in any dish: a simple sauté, lasagna, meatloaf, anything. “Placenta” means “cake” in Latin because it’s round and flat; she could make it into a burger. If none of this appeals, she could have it freeze-dried, emulsified, and made into capsules.

“Oh, but I’m vegetarian,” I said, moving my eyes reverently in the direction of a Krishna wall hanging. But the doula-in-training was armed with a response. “Placenta,” she said, “isn’t meat that is killed.” She patted me reassuringly. “It’s OK!”

“I’m OK,” I automatically responded, as if already stuffed and passing on seconds. I didn’t want to burst her bubble, but sautéing, stir-frying, or even baking placenta would likely change the molecular structure of the hormones in it. I suspect she’d have difficulty attracting clients if they had to eat their bloody organ raw, sushi-style.

As it turned out, my obstetrician had a difficult time removing my placenta. Once out, I let my eyes linger on the silver platter it was heaped on. Weighing in at about a pound and a half, this grayish bloody sack fed and protected my daughter and manipulated me for the nearly ten months of pregnancy. It removed her waste. “It’s got to be tough,” I thought.

But regret came over me as I watched it leave the room. Should I have kept it, tried it? I reminded myself there is no proof that consumption of the placenta wards off serious depression or even the baby blues. Humans in traditional cultures only very rarely eat the afterbirth. Hippies ate it but chimps won’t. Many ethnic groups, honoring the placenta’s indispensability, bury it ceremoniously.

I admit a medical incinerator is not a respectful end. But neither is a vegetarian’s hostile gut. I hate to be close-minded, but my jaws are locked shut.

[Click here for an account of a woman who ate the placenta in the pic above.]

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Is there a mommy gene?

Posted in news, pregnancy, science by jenapincott on October 17, 2010

At four o’clock in the morning, in the street in front of our home, I nearly lose it. Our three-week old has been crying for ten hours. I’ve wrestled her into a sling and am jumping up and down under a streetlight, singing “Amazing Grace” in agitated bursts.

Things have taken a turn for the worse. Earlier in the day when I lifted the baby up to my face, eyeball to eyeball, she jerked her head away and cried harder. The infant has been rocked and bounced, shushed and swaddled – with increasing force and desperation. It occurs to me that maybe I should ignore her for a spell. I could lay her down on the dewy grass, let her scream at the stars and the moon, while I drop my head in my hands and weep. How sweet the sound.

If there’s a mommy gene, I don’t have it.

Mommy genes! The idea started about fifteen years ago when a doctoral student named Jennifer Brown and her colleagues at Harvard Medical School noticed something wrong with their mice experiment. Pups were dying. Whole litters, in fact, were wiped out just a day or two after birth. This was strange, because the babies were healthy and so were the mothers. One glance at the mouse cage solved the mystery. Pups were scattered everywhere, shivering and starving, while the mothers nonchalantly went about their business. Normal mother mice round up their brood and feed and lick them. But these dams didn’t give a damn. They acted oblivious to their babies’ frantic squeaks.

The mother mice were specially bred to lack a gene called fosB. Brown and her colleagues had no idea that knocking out fosB would make mice into deadbeat moms, but it apparently does. It turns out that the gene, when activated, creates a protein that turns on other genes and is partly responsible for the function of neurons in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that controls emotional behavior — including nurture. If you’re a murine mother, just being around your babies usually triggers the fosB gene to express itself. Because mother mice lacking a working copy of the gene are not motherly, fosB hit the headlines as the first “mommy gene.”

Several years later researchers found that genes called Peg 1/Mest and Peg3 also have an effect on the motherliness of mice. When scientists disabled these genes the result was similar the FosB experiment: cold-hearted mothers, empty-bellied pups. Both these genes influence how oxytocin, the “love hormone” behind caressing and nursing and other mothering behavior, is processed in the brain. When oxytocin doesn’t get to where it needs to go, the result is less nurture, more neglect. (Interestingly, in mice and humans, only the Peg1/Mest and Peg3 genes are imprinted and only the one inherited from the father is active. This means an afflicted mouse can blame her lack of mothering instinct on her dads. An attentive one can give him credit. )

“More Mommy genes!” the headlines raved. Mice and humans share many of the same genes, so these genes may influence women’s nurturing instincts, too. Perhaps we can test every wannabe mom to see if she has working copies of FosB, Peg1/ Mest, and Peg3. Then we’ll know who can soothe babies into submission and who thinks it’s a good idea to leave them to cry under the stars. Perhaps we can use genetic engineering to make us supermoms. No new parent would feel exasperated and hopeless again. Let’s make sure everyone has warm fuzzy mommy genes.

The scientists doing this research never claimed they found mommy genes. That sort of bravado would be embarrassing. Humans are obviously more complex than mice, and our behavior is more nuanced.

To say a gene makes a woman a good mother is a little like saying the carburetor is what makes a plane fly. Sure, the plane wouldn’t get off the ground without the device to blend air and fuel. But to credit the carburetor for flight? What about the wings, the pilot, the fuel? Or even the screws and the steel? And what about air around the plane, and the molecules in it? We can’t give all the credit (or blame) to one widget.

The same goes for “mommy genes.” Sure, genes influence how proteins are transcribed and neurons fire and signals are dispatched and hormones are received and processed, and so on. Every part of this infrastructure supports our nurturing behavior. We may be especially deficient if particular genes are defective or if they malfunction. There’s no doubt that researching these genes gives us valuable information about our nurturing behavior. But it’s likely that any one gene is just a widget in what makes us fly.

What’s a good mommy, anyway? That’s a debate beyond the realm of science. It’s slippery. When my newborn finally falls asleep in my arms, angelically, clutching my pinky, I feel like a good mommy again. It doesn’t require mommy genes.

It takes amazing grace.

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Can an infection have mind-control properties?

Posted in news, pregnancy by jenapincott on September 29, 2010

I try to be calm as the obstetrician draws my blood to test for toxoplasmosis.

Officially known as T. gondii, toxoplasmosis (or toxo) is a single-celled protozoa transmitted by exposure to cat excrement and by eating raw meat. We can also get it by gardening, eating unwashed fresh veggies and fruit, walking with bare feet on feces-rich soil.

My doctor tests all pregnant women for toxo, as do many doctors in Europe. Infection rates hover around 12 percent in the United States. In Brazil about 67 percent are infected (due to warm climate), in Hungary 59 percent, and in France about 45 percent (for the latter, blame all that steak tartare and pink lamb).

We’ve known for decades that toxo does weird things to the brain because rats infected with the parasite act a bit strange. By strange I mean they’re not only afraid of cat scents, they’re strangely aroused by them. And because they seek out cats, they’re often consumed, and in being consumed they infect the cats, completing toxo’s lifecycle. This is how the parasite perpetuates — by puppeteering. It manipulates rodents to sacrifice themselves to infect other cats and other rats, and so on.

Toxo may also invade and manipulate the human brain, which shares much of the same anatomy and neurotransmitters with rats — although mind control here is different (cats don’t usually eat humans, so there’s no evolutionary pressure on the parasite to tweak its effect on people). Paristologist Jaroslav Flegr of Charles University in Prague found that people with a latent infection tend to be more apprehensive, guilt-prone, self-doubting, and insecure. They have slower reaction times, especially if they also lack a certain blood protein, and three times as likely to get into traffic accidents due to impaired attention or reflexes. Infected women tend to be warmer-hearted, dutiful, moralistic, conforming, easy-going, persistent, and more outgoing and promiscuous. Infected men tend to be more jealous, rigid, slow-tempered, rule-flaunting, emotionally unstable, and impulsive.

Correlation is not causation, as scientists say when fascinating associations like this arise. But toxo may have an impact on personality and behavior because causes slight brain inflammation and alters its host’s levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and anticipation (and also movement). The parasite does this by producing an enzyme called hydroxylase, which makes dopamine.

Dramatic as this sounds, most people are completely oblivious that toxo haunts their cells. Only pregnant women are commonly tested. And I’m one of them. Because I’m a hypochondriachal life-long cat owner who once worked on a farm, travels extensively, and doesn’t always scrub her veggies vigorously, I’m convinced I’ve been infected.

The nurse doesn’t think it’s an issue. “Not much happens if you’re positive,” she says, and shrugs. Her body language suggests it’s a silly test.

“Unless it’s a recent infection it doesn’t matter. We can tell by the antibodies if you’ve been infected in the last few months. If so, we give you antiparasitic drugs.”

Simple as that.

From a medical perspective, what she says is true. The risk to a fetus depends on the timing of infection and recent infection has the most disastrous consequences. If you happen to become infected with toxoplasmosis while pregnant, or soon before, the parasite or its toxins may cross over the placenta to infect your baby’s nervous system. Babies born to mothers infected in the first half of pregnancy often have shrunken or swollen brains and mental retardation. If infected in the second half, babies may not show symptoms at birth yet central nervous system problems may emerge years later. These babies are at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia — delusions, hallucinations — later in life, likely due to altered levels of dopamine triggered by the parasite.

The nice news is that if you’ve been infected for years before pregnancy you probably won’t pass toxo to your baby, nor will you likely have any obvious signs of infection (although cysts form in the brain). According to Dr. Flegr, only an active infection in the mom suggests a causal link between infection and her baby’s temperament. This is because your immune system usually keeps the parasite in check. But don’t think it’s completely asymptomatic.

In the past decade or so, studies have found that moms with dormant toxo infections have more sons (up to two boys for every girl), and those fetuses develop slightly more slowly than other babies. Perhaps there are other side effects that are undocumented.

Reading up on the science of prenatal infection I get reflective. Viruses, bacteria, and other parasites have always entered us — and some, such as our mitochondrial DNA (originally a bacterium), have become part of us and we can not live without them. Ancient viruses now exist deactivated or defanged in our DNA (in fact, genes from the placenta are thought to be a legacy of ancient viruses) Some viruses may be reactivated, like half-cured villains released from prison, and are thought to be a cause of cancer. Some invaders, initially dangerous, have converted to communalism, such as the thousands of good-guy varieties of healthy gut bacterial that make digestion possible. Strange but true: there are more bacterial than human genes in our bodies.

In a way, pregnancy has made me less fixed on the notion that my self is a singular identity over which I have total control. The fetus is me but not me, and she has changed me in ways I can’t yet fathom. The line between self and other is getting fuzzier.

But as philosophical as I get about self and other, me and microbe, my heart still races when I call the nurse to read my test results.

Negative for toxoplasmosis.

I’m relieved. Truth is, the only parasite I really don’t mind carrying is the baby.

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Perks and perils of the Pill?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 7, 2010

I spoke to the blogger Rachel Rabbit White about the psychological impact of birth control, and here’s her article.

On a personal note, I’m busy with a newborn so posts will be (temporarily) less frequent…..

“Blondes” in the Washington Post

Posted in media, news by jenapincott on July 11, 2010

At 40+ weeks pregnant still happy to talk about men’s bodies….Here’s a fun article in today’s WaPo on the hot soccer players of the World Cup, with mention of BLONDES.

Do employers prefer blondes?

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 17, 2010

Earlier this month I was sent a new study that found that there’s yet another bonus of being blonde, and this one is unexpected: Blondes get paid more than women with any other hair color. This surprised me, and so I read further.

David Johnston, an economist at Queensland University in Australia, scoured a database of 12,686 Caucasian women ages 25 and older living in the United States. The database identified the natural hair color of each woman [light blonde (1.6%), blonde (19.0%), light brown (21.8%), brown (51.2%), black (2.4%) and red (4.0%)], their hourly wages, their marital status, their husbands’ hourly wages, and their education level. Johnston controlled for height, weight, eye color, education, and other variables.

Contrary to the (silly) perception that blondes are dumb, the data reveal that they have as much education as women of any other hair color. But, interestingly, they earn 7 percent more than women with any other hair color — the market equivalent of an extra year of education. (For the same job that pays darker-haired women $50,000 yearly, blondes would get paid $53,500). No other hair color but blond appears to influence a woman’s salary.

Blondes in the marriage market also appear to get a monetary boost. The data show that blondes marry men who earn 6 percent more on average than the husbands of women with other hair colors. Blondes appear to attract and marry higher-earners. Or wealthier men appear to marry blondes.

Johnston speculates tepidly on the reasons why blondes appear to have an advantage wage-wise. Skin color is one. Although all the women were Caucasian, natural blondes may have fairer skin, associated with countries with a strong work ethic (Northern European).

More plausibly, he cites attractiveness as a paycheck-plumper. Blondes may be perceived as prettier, and beauties are known to get paid more than plain Janes. Even if they aren’t inherently more beautiful, blondes, boosted by public perception, may be more confident, social, and therefore have better communication skills. They may be (wrongly) perceived as being more productive and valuable as employees.

What Johnston doesn’t break down are the types of occupations in which the women are employed. Among waitresses, dancers, Fox newscasters, and Mary Kay saleswomen, perhaps blond hair is a bonus. But do blond doctors and librarians, physicists and writers really earn more than their darker-haired colleagues? I hope not.

“Cheating gene” mouth swab test available

Posted in news by jenapincott on May 8, 2010


In BLONDES and in this post I write about the so-called “cheating gene.”

Not long ago, Hasse Walum, a handsome post-graduate at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, decided to study the association between a particular gene for what is called a vasopressin receptor and relationship stability. He analyzed the responses of over 550 twins and their partners to questions, some of them intrusive, about their relationships: How often do you kiss your mate? “Have you ever regretted getting married/moving in?” “Have you discussed a divorce or separation with a close friend?” “Rate your degree of happiness in your relationship on a scale of 1-7.”

Walum then sampled the men’s DNA. Getting DNA from the men was simple. You don’t need blood to have access to another person’s genome, just saliva, which the men submitted in a mouth swab.

What Walum discovered was stunning. Focusing on one particular vasopressin receptor gene variant, allele 334, he found that the more copies of it a man had, the weaker his bond with his partner. Men who lacked the gene variant were generally happiest in their relationships — only 15 percent of them had a crisis. Men with one copy were slightly more likely to have marital problems. And men with two copies were, on average, twice as likely to have had a relationship crisis in the past year than men who didn’t have the variant — meaning that 34 percent of them, or one in three, were headed toward a break up. Their partners agreed. Women whose partners carried one or two copies of the allele 334 variant were generally less satisfied with their men, probably because they generally scored as less affectionate than other guys.

Walum also found that men with two copies of the variant were nearly twice as likely not to marry their partners and mothers of their children as men who had no copies of the variant. This suggests that there is something slightly different about the vasopressin receptors in the brains of men who struggle in their roles as partners and fathers. These men may have more difficulty bonding with other people, including their wives and kids.

I imagine that some of you are now scheming to get an allele 334 test for your man. Of the more than five hundred women who responded to my online poll on this topic, nearly 65 percent said they would test their man if given the option.

And now you can. Yes, you can order a saliva test for allele 334 of the AVPR1A gene for $99 from Genesis Biolabs. (I can’t vouch for the lab. I’m reporting for entertainment purposes.)

Ladies, there’s a caveat here, of course. Even if there’s a correlation between this particular gene variant and a man’s behavior, it doesn’t account for all men. Just as the “god gene” and “gay gene” are met with skepticism in the scientific community, so is the “cheating gene.” Even within Walum’s study, there were men with two allele 334 variants who were happy husbands and fathers, and there were men without the variant who were miserable in their relationships. The statistics apply to populations, not individuals, who are also influenced by a other factors — parental role models, partner choice, opportunity to cheat, past loves, age, life satisfaction, religion, hormone levels, and so on.

A two-allele man may become a number one husband under the right circumstances.

But it’s your call. Swab him and then decide?

A new theory on men’s penis shape?

Posted in news by jenapincott on April 27, 2010

Several months ago, I blogged about a new theory on why men love breasts. New theories pop up all the time, so it’s no surprise that there are new theories on male body parts, too. A recent issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior features an alternative explanation for the shape of the human penis.

As described in BLONDES, the prevailing theory on why the human penis has a distinctive head and corona (rounded projecting border) is that it can scoop out semen deposited in the vagina by a woman’s previous lovers, thus averting a pregnancy. This means the last lover, not the first, gets the head-start.

Not likely, says Dr. Edwin Bowman, in his letter to the editor.

Instead of scooping out other men’s semen, writes Bowman, the penile head and corona scoop out vaginal secretions. After collected, these fluids are then absorbed by the foreskin. The mucous membrane of the foreskin, it turns out, is like a sponge for the stuff.

Why would evolution select for men to absorb vaginal secretions?

Just as semen has “mind control properties,” so do vaginal fluids. When ovulating and most likely to conceive, these secretions contain neurohormones such as pitocin and vasopressin. The latter in particular has been associated with bonding and is thought to trigger protective behavior among males for their partners. Vasopressin, after all, is thought of as a male “love drug.” Flooded with bonding hormones, a guy may be more likely to stick around if he impregnates his partner.

Knowing this, will more men use condoms?