Diaper Duty

Learning from an unlikely source


With the help of thirty-two babies and more than five thousand used diapers, Emory researchers have developed a simple, accurate way to measure estrogen levels in infants.

Surprisingly little is known about hormone levels during infancy. Previous research has focused on the measurement of hormones in blood, urine, and saliva. But because of the difficulties of repeatedly taking such samples from healthy infants, few data have been available.

The less-invasive approach of collecting fecal samples from cotton diapers provided accurate measures of levels of estradiol, a type of estrogen, reported senior author and Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Anthropology Michelle Lampl in Frontiers in Systems Biology.

The importance of estradiol’s role in postnatal development of the body, brain, and behavior has in recent years raised concerns about environmental estrogens and their impact on people’s long-term health.

The study, conducted by researchers at Emory, the University of North Carolina&8211;Chapel Hill, and the University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, included fifteen boys and seventeen girls, ages seven days to fifteen months. The infants’ parents retained soiled diapers for twenty-four hours, which were then collected, frozen and stored at -80°C, and analyzed.

“We understand very little about the hormonal dynamics that occur during early development precisely because we lack a reliable way to track hormones in neonates and very young children,” says James Robert McCord Professor Sara Berga, chair of the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics. “Having a way to track this critical hormone that influences behavior and the development of many important tissues, including the brain, will allow us to understand normal. This really is a great leap forward.”

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