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Nature Neuroscience Editorial: The Value Of Long Term Epidemiological Projects Such As ALSPAC

14 June 2004

ALSPAC’s potential to test scientific hypotheses is highlighted by an editorial in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience.

ALSPAC’s potential to test scientific hypotheses is highlighted by an editorial in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience.

US researchers had discovered that aspirin taken during pregnancy apparently affects the sex drive of embryo male rats later in life.

If the same effect was seen in humans – it could have important repercussions.

The journal says: “If prenatal exposure to Cox inhibitors does affect some aspect of human sexuality, this could easily have escaped notice. The lag from cause to effect could be several decades, and there was no previous reason to look for such link.

“Now that there is a motivation for doing so, the only way to test the hypothesis is through a longitudinal epidemiological study. These tests are by necessity long-term projects, but at least one such study is already underway.

“The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) was initiated about 15 years ago by Jean Golding, an epidemiologist at Bristol University, with the aim of studying genetic and early environmental effects on health and other life outcomes.

“Golding and her colleagues recruited a cohort of almost 15,000 pregnant women, whose children, born in 1991–1992, have been tracked ever since. The researchers took blood samples from the pregnant mothers and also gathered information about drug use, including commonly used COX inhibitors such as aspirin and Paracetamol (acetaminophen, sold as Tylenol in the USA).

“About half the mothers reported taking Paracetemol during pregnancy, and the ALSPAC group has found that high usage is associated with wheezing in the children1, suggesting a possible link to asthma.

”The same cohort can also be used to test for sexual effects. Among the researchers collaborating with Golding is Melissa Hines at City University in London, an expert on the neural basis of human sexual behavior.

“Hines has already reported, based on ALSPAC data, that gender role behavior in three and a half-year-olds is associated with maternal testosterone levels; girls who are 'tomboys' (for example, preferring toy trucks to dolls) are more likely to have been exposed to high levels of testosterone in utero than those whose behaviour is more sex-typical2.

“Hines is re-examining these data to see whether there is any relationship between gender role behavior and exposure to COX inhibitors. She also plans to conduct a follow-up study with the children, who are now approaching 13.

“Adolescents can be reticent about discussing sexual matters, but the questionnaires are computerized and strictly anonymous, so Hines is optimistic that it will be possible to obtain meaningful data about sexual relationships and orientation, as well as longer-term outcomes such as marriage and fertility.

”Until these epidemiological studies are completed, the possible effect of COX inhibitors on humans must remain a matter for speculation.”

Academic paper reference

"COX inhibitors and sexual development" Nature Neuroscience  7, 563 (2004) doi:10.1038/nn0604-563

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