The introduction and proliferation of synthetic chemicals into our diets, houseware, clothing, and other aspects of our daily lives has sparked both academic research and public outcry. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), including the well-known chemical Bisphenol-A (BPA), are often the most common target due to their documented effects on hormone regulation and the endocrine system. EDCs have been researched most intensely with regard to their impacts on infants and young animals. Because young lifeforms have so many tissues and organs that are developing and growing, EDCs can have permanent effects on the health of those exposed at a young age. Research on the effects of EDCs on adults, and especially adult females, has been much more limited, generally presuming that the health effects of EDCs on adults are likely temporary and will subside when EDC exposure is removed.
Dr. Laura Vandenberg, CRF Family Scholar and lead researcher on EDCs whose pioneering work has contributed to much of the public discussion and policy responses to BPA, is currently conducting an experiment which could reveal whether EDCs can have permanent health effects on pregnant mothers, as opposed to only temporary effects. Dr. Laura Vandenberg hypothesizes that because “pregnancy is such a critical period of life” with many radical changes occurring in the mother’s body, that exposure to EDCs during this time period could have permanent biological and psychological effects on the health of the mother’s mammary glands, brain, and other organs. It was previously assumed that EDC’s effects on adult health were only activational, or temporary, while effects only on children can be organizational, or permanent. Laura’s research could challenge these assumptions.
Laura’s research is crucial to understanding and improving the wellbeing of families because she is studying EDCs that can mimic estrogen, a key determinant of healthy maternal behavior. Blocking estrogen actions in mice can prevent the execution of maternal behaviors, like the construction of safe nests, feeding of offspring, and gathering of pups when they are dispersed from the mother. As many family researchers will attest to, the quality of maternal care in early childhood development is crucial for the trajectory of offspring health. Her work is also examining the effects of estrogenic EDCs on the mammary gland including how developed it becomes during lactation and whether it can produce sufficient quantities of milk. She also aims to understand whether the mammary gland is permanently altered by EDC exposures, making exposed mothers more susceptible to diseases like cancer. Although the effects of EDCs on the brain and mammary gland have been assumed to be only temporary in adults, Laura’s research will further investigate potential permanent effects these compounds.
In addition to challenging conventional assumptions with her research questions, Laura is also challenging the use of conventional methods and measures that are typically used during chemical safety assessments. Traditionally, when trying to make decisions about whether an environmental chemical like BPA is safe, regulators examine descriptive measures like the weight of an animal’s organs, or other easily standardized measures; however, a growing body of literature, much of it developed in Laura’s field of study, endocrinology, shows that those traditional measures are insufficient indicators for diseases. For example, evidence accumulated largely from academic labs shows that there are behavioral effects from EDC exposures that can’t be captured using traditional measures.
During the beginning of her CRF fellowship, Laura is conducting a pilot experiment on pregnant mice and their offspring. This experiment has many phases, key portions of which include exposing pregnant mice to EDCs and observing how they interact with their offspring after birth. Laura is going to be paying particular attention to their maternal behaviors and especially nursing behaviors. With the help of her PhD student and CRF student researcher Mary Catanese, the pilot study will examine potential neurological changes to regions of the brain that are crucial in the execution of maternal behavior. Laura will also collect and analyze mammary glands from the mothers, with assistance from her team of undergraduate researchers.
Laura’s research has the potential to yield groundbreaking results that will build off of her already influential research on BPA and other EDCs. As EDCs are increasingly identified in our personal care, household, and dietary products, it is crucial that we fully understand their effects and the implications of such widespread exposures. As the chemical industry responds by trying to evade these research findings and the implementation of new regulations, cutting edge and innovative research like Laura’s becomes increasingly important to document the full impacts of EDCs.
Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to support their research.