Scientists work diligently in search of information that will solve the mysteries of life. The ever-growing body of knowledge goes a long way in revealing how a sperm and egg become a fully formed human in just nine short months but each new discovery seems to generate more questions. One question that remains unanswered and intriguing to Christopher Coe is "How does the prenatal environment set the stage for risk or for resilience?"
Coe has turned to hair for the answer to that question. He and his team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) analyzed hair from an infant and hair from its mother to get a glimpse into the womb environment. Coe, a professor of psychology who also serves as director for the UW-Madison Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, thinks the findings of his study of hair could prove useful in the a broad spectrum of biological specialties that include neonatology, neurology, psychology, and social science.
Hair starts growing a month or two before a baby is born. Coe's team conducted chemical analysis of babies' hair to see what hormones it had been exposed to during gestation. The analysis is much like the hair analysis done for forensic science, nutritional evaluation, and chemical exposures.
Hair closest to the scalp reveals the most recent exposures. The ends of hair reveal the oldest data. The longer the hair, the longer the length of time available for analysis.
Rhesus monkeys were used in the UW-Madison experiments because the species is so similar biologically to humans and because newborn monkeys are a lot hairier than newborn humans. As the procedure is perfected in the future, analysis of hair from human babies is expected. The procedure is non-invasive and completely painless.
The monkey mothers ranged in age so their hair's hormonal signature would match that of a human mother of equivalent age. The youngest monkey mothers were equivalent to a 15-year-old human.
Previous studies indicate young human mothers have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and the female hormone, estrogen, than older mothers. High levels of cortisol in utero have been linked to impairments of attention and reflex and increased likelihood of learning and emotional issues.
Each hair sample was pulverized and submitted to a new form of mass spectrometry to read the hormonal signature of the sample. The researchers were looking for the presence of eight individual hormones.
The Coe research team discovered “dramatically higher” concentrations of hormones that include cortisone, estrogen, and testosterone in the newborns’ hair samples than in their mothers.’ Additionally, in the case of first-time mothers, the babies' hair samples revealed a higher degree of cortisone than the hair samples of the offspring born to mothers having a second or subsequent baby.
Questions arising from the study involve the significance of birth order, the degree of stereotypical gender behaviors in the offspring, and how significant the hormonal environment of the womb is to one's state of health later in life.
Source: Coe, Christopher L, et al. "Hormones in infant rhesus monkeys' (Macaca mulatta) hair at birth provide a window into the fetal environment." Pediatric Research. Nature Publishing Group / Macmillan Publishers Limited. Feb 12, 2014. Web. May 1, 2014.