paradigm shifts

by rantywoman

I have a friend who, after several miscarriages, had a healthy baby at 40 and is now pregnant with a second at 42. Another friend had a healthy baby at 43 and just had her second at 44. So I don’t know; I’m sure some of the upward creep in birth defects can be attributed to better diagnosis as well as environmental conditions. But this is food for thought:

Especially passages such as this one:

This paradigm shift may do more than just tip the balance of concern away from older mothers toward older fathers; it may also transform our definition of mental illness itself. “It’s been my hypothesis, though it is only a hypothesis at this point, that most of the disorders that afflict neuropsychiatric patients—depression, schizophrenia, and autism, at least the more extreme cases—have their basis in the early processes of brain maturation,” Dr. Jay Gingrich, a professor of psychobiology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and a former colleague of Malaspina’s, told me. Recent mouse studies have uncovered actual architectural differences between the brains of offspring of older fathers and those of younger fathers. Gingrich and his team looked at the epigenetic markings on the genes in those older-fathered and younger-fathered brains and found disparities between them, too. “So then we said: ‘Wow, that’s amazing. Let’s double down and see whether we can see differences in the sperm DNA of the older and younger fathers,’” Gingrich said. And they didn’t just see it, he continued; they saw it “in spades—with an order of magnitude more prominent in sperm than in the brain.” While more research needs to be done on how older sperm may translate into mental illness, Gingrich is confident that the link exists. “It’s a fascinating smoking gun,” he says.


Epigenetics is also forcing medical researchers to reopen questions about fertility treatments that had been written off as answered and done with. Fertility doctors do a lot of things to sperm and eggs that have not been rigorously tested, including keeping them in liquids (“culture media,” they’re called) teeming with chemicals that may or may not scramble an embryo’s development—no one knows for sure. There just isn’t a lot of data to work with: The fertility industry, which is notoriously under-regulated, does not give the government reports on what happens to the children it produces. As Wendy Chavkin, a professor of obstetrics and population studies at Columbia University’s school of public health, says, “We keep pulling off these technological marvels without the sober tracking of data you’d want to see before these things become widespread all over the world.”

Clomid, or clomiphene citrate, which has become almost as common as aspirin in women undergoing fertility treatments, came out particularly badly in the recent New England Journal of Medicine study that rang alarm bells about ART and birth defects. “I think it’s an absolute time bomb,” Michael Davies, the study’s lead researcher and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Adelaide in Australia, told me. “We estimate that there may be in excess of 500 preventable major birth defects occurring annually across Australia as a direct result of this drug,” he wrote in a fact sheet he sent me. Dr. Jennita Reefhuis, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, worries that Clomid might build up in women’s bodies when they take it repeatedly, rather than washing out of the body as it is supposed to. If so, the hormonal changes induced by the drug may misdirect early fetal development.