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High maternal cortisol levels linked to unexpected birth problems

A snippet of hair can reveal a pregnant person’s stress level and may one day help warn of unexpected birth problems, a study indicates.

Washington State University researchers measured the stress hormone cortisol in hair samples of 53 women in their third trimester. Of that group, 13 women who had elevated cortisol levels later experienced unpredicted birth complications, such as an early birth or hemorrhaging.

While more research is needed with larger groups, this preliminary finding could eventually lead to a non-invasive way to identify those at risk for such complications. The researchers reported their findings in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“There was otherwise nothing about these women that would suggest a disease or anything else complicating the pregnancy. This confirmed some hypotheses that levels of stress, related specifically to cortisol levels, might be associated with adverse birth outcomes,” said Erica Crespi, a WSU developmental biologist and study’s corresponding author.

As part of the study, the participants all answered survey questions about their levels of psychological distress in addition to having cortisol measurements taken in the third trimester of pregnancy and after they gave birth. The women who experienced unexpected birth complications had elevated cortisol concentrations in their hair, a measure that indicates the stress hormone’s circulating levels in the body during the three months prior to collection.

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Multi-generational toxicant exposures show cumulative, inherited health effects

While exposure to a single substance like DDT has been shown to create inherited disease susceptibility, a recent study in animals found exposure to multiple different toxicants across generations can amplify those health problems.

In the study, published in the journal Environmental Epigenetics, an initial generation of pregnant rats was exposed to a common fungicide, then their progeny to jet fuel and the following generation to DDT. When those rats were then bred out to a fifth unexposed generation, the incidence of obesity as well as kidney and prostate diseases in those animals were compounded, rising by as much as 70%.

Researchers also found that their epigenetics, molecular processes independent of DNA that influence gene expression, were also greatly altered.

“We looked at multiple-generation exposures because these types of things are going on routinely, and previous research has only looked at single exposures,” said Michael Skinner, a WSU biology professor and the study’s corresponding author. “We found that if multiple generations get different exposures, then eventually there’s an amplification or compounded effect on some diseases.”

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Guide on how to use climate data to inform human adaptation

A framework for combining climate and social data could help scientists better support climate change adaptation ahead of future weather-related disasters.

The Washington State University-led research draws on the expertise of climate and social scientists to show how data on different characteristics of climate variability can be used to study the effectiveness of various human responses to climate change. It could ultimately help policymakers and organizations determine where and under what conditions different climate adaptations have worked in the past and where they may work in the future.

“Our framework enables researchers across many fields to better study the relationship between characteristics of climate and adaptation, including which adaptations emerge under which conditions,” said Anne Pisor, lead author of the paper in the journal One Earth and a WSU associate professor of anthropology. “Our hope is this research will help the global community heed warnings from the recent United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) and direct adaptation funding into programs and efforts that can better support communities as they respond to ongoing change.”

Pisor’s coauthors for the study included Deepti Singh, assistant professor in the WSU School of the Environment.

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Even hibernating grizzly bears have a circadian rhythm

There is a pattern to when we wake up and get tired over a 24-hour period, scientists call it the circadian rhythm. Most other animals experience it too.

As winter arrives with its shorter days, grizzly and black bears begin their long naps, called hibernation. During this time bears will still move about a bit, but they don’t eat while hibernating.

Scientists at Washington State University were curious how grizzly bears’ circadian rhythms are affected during hibernation and conducted a study. What they found was although the animals are much less active, the energy their bodies produce still grows and fades over the course of a day as if they were awake, but at a much lower level.

Co-authors on the study include WSU graduate student and first author Ellery Vincent as well as Blair Perry (biological sciences) and Charles Robbins (environment and biological sciences), and Joanna Kelley of University of California, Santa Cruz. This research received support from the National Science Foundation and the Bear Research and Conservation Endowment at WSU.

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Early spring heat waves may be melting PNW water supply

Increasingly frequent spring heat waves are prompting premature snow melts across the Pacific Northwest, jeopardizing a key water source for area residents, a new study has found.

Successive stretches of unseasonable heat have been occurring earlier in the year in a region that depends on snowpack for summer water, according to the study, published Wednesday in npj Climate and Atmospheric Science.

“Short-term events like heatwaves have had an under-appreciated impact on accelerating snow melt, and cumulatively, they can amplify each other,” lead author Luke Reyes, a doctoral student in Washington State University’s School of the Environment, said in a statement.

Heat domes, weather events in which the atmosphere traps hot ocean air, triggered record temperatures that rose to nearly 122 degrees Fahrenheit across the Pacific Northwest in late June 2021.

So extreme was this event that British Columbia endured severe floods in several snow- and glacier-fed watersheds, as well as a large rock avalanche, the authors noted.

While the researchers had intended to examine the snowmelt caused by that single event, they ended up finding that much of the region’s snowpack was already gone before the heat dome arrived.

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