Of Hamsters and Boys: New Study About Teen Sex Isn’t About Teens At All


Okay, so I had literally just finished posting my last news story about how teens are behaving responsibly when it comes to contraception and the birth rate is coming down, when a story with this headline popped up in my in-box:  “Teen Sex May Affect Brain Development, Study Suggests.” 

The article, from Fox News (of course), began by discussing the uproar over a recent episode of Glee in which two teen couples have sex for the first time.  I missed the uproar because in my circle of friends the episode was happily received as a rare, positive portrayal of teen sexuality.  But not everyone saw it that way.  The watchdog group, Parents Television Council denounced the episode in a statement before it aired, saying: “The fact that ‘Glee’ intends to … celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.”  I suppose that was inevitable.

Anyhow, this article goes on to say that the uproar may have some “scientific legs.”  You see, it explains, “new research shows sex during the adolescent years could affect mood and brain development into adulthood.”

Interesting. I read on. 

“The study, which was carried out on hamsters, reveals how social experiences during adolescence when the brain is still developing can have broad consequences.”

Hamsters? 

Yep.  Hamsters.

Apparently, scientists compared three groups of hamsters on their 120th day of life:  the first group had mated with an adult female in heat when they were 40 days old (roughly the equivalent of human teens because hamsters hit puberty at 21 days); the second waited to mate until they were 80 days old, and a third control group was not exposed to females at all (sorry guys).

At the 120 day mark the researchers found that the hamsters that had become sexually active at 40 days were more likely to stop swimming vigorously when placed in water than their peers in the other groups. This was described as a symptom of depression.  These hamsters also showed less “complexity in the brain’s dendrites” and had smaller seminal vesicles and vas deferens. On the plus side they had lower body masses and enhanced immune responses.

Researchers also found that “all of the sexually active hamsters showed higher levels of anxiety, measured by willingness to explore a maze, than the virgin hamsters.” 

While this does sound like bad news for the hamsters—and definitely fodder for those arguing for celibacy among rodents—I don’t see how it is bad news—or news at all—for human teens.  And neither do the researchers.  The study (which was presented at a professional meeting but has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal) joins a growing body of research studying the impact of hormones on brain development in animals.  But the lead researcher cautioned against direct correlations with humans:  “In no way do these data bear directly on the issue of teenage abstinence.”  

Of course, that didn’t stop Fox from suggesting otherwise in it headline. 

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  • johann7

    Considering the radically-different ways in which both the physical and social development of hamsters and humans occurs, I’m going to say that in no way at all, direct or indirect, do these data bear on humans or human sexuality. Hormones might affect the way certain kinds of cells behave or develop, but it’s the way those differently-developed cells interact with other cells (creating tissues, organs, and body systems) and an organism’s environment that cause noticible impacts, and it’s largely a matter of social construction which of those impacts we consider advantageous or deliterious. The reasearch sounds very interesting and valuable (beyond knowledge being valuable simply for its own sake) in that it has the potential to eventually lead to something related to humans (perhaps development of hormone or other drug therapies to treat various disadvantageous conditions in people by understand inpacts on certain kinds of cells we share with hamsters), but this particular study has exactly zero to do with people.

     

    I’d say shame on FOX News, but at this point it’s pretty clear that no one there feels shame.