News Sexual Health

Of Hamsters and Boys: New Study About Teen Sex Isn’t About Teens At All

Martha Kempner

Headlines about a new study seem to suggest that the research found a connection between teen sex and brain development.  It did, just not in humans. 

Okay, so I had literally just finished posting my last news story about how teens are behaving responsibly when it comes to contraception and the birth rate is coming down, when a story with this headline popped up in my in-box:  “Teen Sex May Affect Brain Development, Study Suggests.” 

The article, from Fox News (of course), began by discussing the uproar over a recent episode of Glee in which two teen couples have sex for the first time.  I missed the uproar because in my circle of friends the episode was happily received as a rare, positive portrayal of teen sexuality.  But not everyone saw it that way.  The watchdog group, Parents Television Council denounced the episode in a statement before it aired, saying: “The fact that ‘Glee’ intends to … celebrate children having sex is reprehensible.”  I suppose that was inevitable.

Anyhow, this article goes on to say that the uproar may have some “scientific legs.”  You see, it explains, “new research shows sex during the adolescent years could affect mood and brain development into adulthood.”

Interesting. I read on. 

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“The study, which was carried out on hamsters, reveals how social experiences during adolescence when the brain is still developing can have broad consequences.”

Hamsters? 

Yep.  Hamsters.

Apparently, scientists compared three groups of hamsters on their 120th day of life:  the first group had mated with an adult female in heat when they were 40 days old (roughly the equivalent of human teens because hamsters hit puberty at 21 days); the second waited to mate until they were 80 days old, and a third control group was not exposed to females at all (sorry guys).

At the 120 day mark the researchers found that the hamsters that had become sexually active at 40 days were more likely to stop swimming vigorously when placed in water than their peers in the other groups. This was described as a symptom of depression.  These hamsters also showed less “complexity in the brain’s dendrites” and had smaller seminal vesicles and vas deferens. On the plus side they had lower body masses and enhanced immune responses.

Researchers also found that “all of the sexually active hamsters showed higher levels of anxiety, measured by willingness to explore a maze, than the virgin hamsters.” 

While this does sound like bad news for the hamsters—and definitely fodder for those arguing for celibacy among rodents—I don’t see how it is bad news—or news at all—for human teens.  And neither do the researchers.  The study (which was presented at a professional meeting but has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal) joins a growing body of research studying the impact of hormones on brain development in animals.  But the lead researcher cautioned against direct correlations with humans:  “In no way do these data bear directly on the issue of teenage abstinence.”  

Of course, that didn’t stop Fox from suggesting otherwise in it headline. 

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