This book is a history of the life of the idea, in the twentieth and twenty-first century biosciences, that a pregnant woman’s health, behavior, and milieu can have intergenerational effects on her descendants. Today, research on maternal effects is emerging as a robust program of study in medicine, public health, psychology, evolutionary biology, and genomics. Tracing a genealogy of ideas about heredity and maternal-fetal effects, The Maternal Imprint offers a critical analysis of conceptual and ethical issues provoked by the striking rise of epigenetics and fetal origins science in postgenomic biology.
The sleep drug zolpidem (Ambien) is a leading example used by advocates of sex-based medicine. In this Op-Ed, Heather Shattuck-Heidorn and I argue that there is no evidence for sex differences in zolpidem dosing -- and that the paradigmatic example of zolpidem is actually a cautionary tale of the dangers of an overfocus on sex differences.
Fifteen years ago, the society that produces this journal was established to advance research on the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). But, as we show here, extending our previous work, DOHaD research has been more concerned with exposures in the fetal period than in any other window of development. This interest manifests as an abundance of studies on the potential effects of the health and lifestyle of mothers around the time of pregnancy on the health of their children. We argue that this focus reflects deeply-held assumptions, among researchers, clinicians, policy makers, the media and the public, that maternal pregnancy exposures are the most important, causal determinants of offspring health. We call for the DOHaD research community to recognize and challenge these assumptions.
In this essay, we pose the biosocial turn as presenting an opportunity to creatively expand the range of empirical inquiries into gender as a biosocial variable and to newly articulate the importance of attending to gender in biological science. Feminist scientists and science theorists, we argue, would do well to engage the reservoir of innovative new biosocial research as a resource for developing methods and theories for the study of sex/gender. Similarly, we call on biosocial scientists to attend as assiduously to gender as they have to other intersecting foci of analysis, such as racial discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage.
Decades of research across scientific disciplines have built an understanding of human sex as a multidimensional trait with biological and social components that can vary over the life course. Against this scientific consensus, the proposed HHS definition marshals bits and pieces of biology in order to exclude millions of transgender citizens — whose sexual or gender identity often does not match their natal genitals — from civil rights protections.
Research on the developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) has traditionally focused on how maternal exposures around the time of pregnancy might influence offspring health and risk of disease. We acknowledge that for some exposures this is likely to be correct, but argue that the focus on maternal pregnancy effects also reflects implicit and deeply-held assumptions that 1) causal early life exposures are primarily transmitted via maternal traits or exposures, 2) maternal exposures around the time of pregnancy and early infancy are particularly important, and 3) other factors, such as paternal factors and postnatal exposures in later life, have relatively little impact in comparison. These implicit assumptions about the “causal primacy” of maternal pregnancy effects set the agenda for DOHaD research and, through a looping effect, are reinforced rather than tested. We propose practical strategies to redress this imbalance through maintaining a critical perspective about these assumptions.
My answer to the question: What are the implications of epigenetic science for theories of the plasticity of human sex, gender, and sexuality?
Abstract: The new science of epigenetics has raised hopes of an embrace of greater plasticity and variation within the biology of sex, gender, and sexuality than previously appreciated. This essay describes and analyzes the integration of epigenetics research into the scientific study of core biological pathways related to sex, gender, and sexuality in the brain in the post-Human Genome Project era. Through a close reading of the primary scientific literature, it demonstrates that epigenetic approaches in this subfield remain continuous with historically well-entrenched models of hardwired brain sexual dimorphism. Considering the opportunities and dilemmas of feminist engagements with the fast-moving and still nascent field of epigenetics, it argues that while epigenetics might become a resource for studies of the development and plasticity of gender-sexed bodies and identities, this will require active feminist contestations of the ontological and epistemological commitments of mainstream research in this field. Feminist attraction to the possibilities for epigenetic research to enable material investigation of gender embodiment and sexual variation follow a long tradition of feminist theoretical interest in plasticity-affirming biologies. Careful consideration of the case of epigenetics suggests a need for revised and more nuanced feminist appraisals of both plasticity-affirming and programming-centric models of biology, body, and sociality.
Many brain and behavioral disorders differentially affect men and women. The new National Institutes of Health requirement to include both male and female animals in preclinical studies aims to address such health disparities, but we argue that the mandate is not the best solution to this problem. Sex differences are highly species-specific, tied to the mating system and social ecology of a given species or even strain of animal. In many cases, animals poorly replicate male-female differences in brain-related human diseases. Sex/gender disparities in human health have a strong sociocultural component that is intimately entangled with biological sex and challenging to model in animals. We support research that investigates sex-related variables in hypothesis-driven studies of animal brains and behavior. However, institutional policies that require sex analysis and give it special salience over other sources of biological variance can distort research. We caution that the costly imposition of sex analysis on nearly all animal research entrenches the presumption that human brain and behavioral differences are largely biological in origin and overlooks the potentially more powerful social, psychological, and cultural contributors to male-female neurobehavioral health gaps.
Women are constantly bombarded with advice about what to eat and drink and how to behave during pregnancy. Rather than add to this growing roster with yet another simplistic injunction, the CDC should do everything it can to provide women with credible information about how to weigh reproductive risks.
Will requiring study of sex in basic laboratory research produce meaningful and relevant science for remedying health disparities between men and women? Our Harvard-based working group of feminist scientists and science studies scholars spent a year reading and discussing the primary documentation supporting the new policy. In a recent article in Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, we argue that as an approach to addressing health disparities between men and women in adverse drug events, the policy is misguided.
"When the new NIH policy was first announced, comedian Stephen Colbert featured the news next to an image of a lab rat "co-ed" wearing lipstick and mascara. But a female rat—not to mention a cell line — is not an embodied woman living in a richly textured social world."
Ten years after the Human Genome Project’s completion, the life sciences stand in a moment of uncertainty, transition, and contestation. The “postgenomic era” has seen rapid shifts in research methodology, funding, scientific labor, and disciplinary structures. Postgenomics is transforming our understanding of disease and health, our environment, and the categories of race, class, and gender. At the same time, “the gene” retains its centrality and power in biological and popular discourse. The contributors to Postgenomics analyze these ruptures and continuities and place them in historical, social, and political context. Postgenomics, they argue, forces a rethinking of the genome itself, and opens new territory for conversations between the social sciences, humanities, and life sciences.
This essay analyzes how maternal bodies are situated and valenced within the field of epigenetics. Epigenetics, the study of how experiences, environments, and exposures alter gene expression, is a vibrant new area of postgenomic life sciences research. Epigenetic research on maternal effects advances a model of human inheritance and development in which the wider social and physical environment can be seen as heritable and as a determinate of future biomedical outcomes via discrete biochemical modifications introduced by the amplifying vector of the maternal body. As an epigenetic vector, the maternal body is at once a background element, a medium for the fetus. Yet it is also a “critical” developmental context in which environmental exposures are amplified, cues are transmitted, and genes are programmed. Epigenetics research situates the maternal body as a central site of epigenetic programming and transmission, and as a significant locus of medical and public health intervention. Reflection on epigenetics-based biomedical and public health interventions recommended by leading scientists suggests a need for sensitivity to how certain bodies or spaces become intensive targets of intervention when conceptualized as amplifying vectors of risk within the explanatory landscape of epigenetics.