October 27, 2003
Gene Discovered For Controlling Puberty Should Be Used To Delay Puberty

A gene that controls the onset of puberty has been discovered.

NIH-funded researchers have identified a gene that appears to be a crucial signal for the beginning of puberty in human beings as well as in mice. Without a functioning copy of the gene, both humans and mice appear to be unable to enter puberty normally. The newly identified gene, known as GPR54, also appears necessary for normal reproductive functioning in human beings.

The study, funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), appears in the October 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. GPR54 is located on an autosomal chromosome (a chromosome that is not a sex chromosome). The study also was funded by the National Center for Research Resources and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, both at NIH.

"The discovery of GPR54 is an important step in understanding the elaborate sequence of events needed for normal sexual maturation," said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). "Findings from this study may lead not only to more effective treatments for individuals who fail to enter puberty normally, but may provide insight into the causes of other reproductive disorders as well."

Puberty begins when a substance known as gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH) is secreted from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. Individuals who fail to reach puberty because of inherited or spontaneous genetic mutations are infertile.

"The discovery of GPR54 as a gatekeeper for puberty across species is very exciting" said the study's first author, Stephanie B. Seminara, of the Reproductive Endocrine Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston and a member of the NICHD-funded, Harvard-wide Endocrine Sciences Center. "In the future, this work might lead to new therapies for the treatment of a variety of reproductive disorders."

While the researchers involved emphasize the value of the research in terms of the development of new therapies for infertility there are other less conventional but perhaps more widely useful reasons for being able to control the onset of puberty. Among the very practical reasons to delay the onset of puberty:

  • Reduce the risk of female cancers by reducing the total number of menstrual cycles a woman experiences in her lifetime. The total number of menstrual cycles represents a cumulative risk for cancer. The stimulation of ovarian, breast, and other female tissue types by female sex hormones as part of the menstrual cycle causes damage that eventually leads to various cancers. That is the reason why women who have more children early in life have a lower risk for some types of female cancer: they didn't experience as many total menstrual cycles.
  • Reduce the risk of male cancers. A delay in the rise of testosterone would reduce the risk of prostate cancer many decades later.
  • Reduce teen pregnancies. Kids who haven't gone thru puberty can not start pregnancies.
  • Improve educational achievement. Kids will be less distracted from school work if they haven't started to feel a strong sex drive and all the changes in feelings that puberty brings on. Time spent thinking about sex and romance is time not spent paying attention to teachers or studying.
  • Reduce the spread of sexual diseases. Delay the onset of the sex drive and there will be less teen sex.
  • More time to emotionally mature. Allow children to grow up more and learn more about the world before having to figure out romantic relationships.
  • Reduce school violence. Less sexual competition would translate into a calmer and safer school environment which would be more conducive to learning.
  • Delayed female puberty would probably delay the point at which women become infertile at middle age. Women who are trying desperately to have children in their late 30s and beyond would have better odds of they haven't already produced as many wasted eggs up to that point.

As I've argued previously, we need to adjust humanity to be more adaptive to the environmental changes that we have created for ourselves which are a consequence of technological advances. The delay of puberty is a great example of how humans could be made more adaptive to modern industrial society. Humans were already selected for to spend a longer time in childhood learning than is the case for most species. But modern technological society demands an even longer period spent learning than we are designed for. Puberty comes too soon before learning is done and before humans are trained well enough to be able to work and support a family. It makes no sense to have puberty start as soon as it does.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 October 27 03:29 PM  Biotech Reproduction

Patrick said at October 27, 2003 9:48 PM:

This leads to the idea of actually being able to test people for sexual knowlege or responsibility before letting them go through puberty.

"You failed the condom section of your puberty test, you'll have to remain a kid for another 6 months."

Andy Janes said at October 28, 2003 4:26 AM:

Slighty disturbing for civil liberties though. What criteria would be used for making this decision?

More importantly, who decides when a kid 'should' enter puberty?

The state? (shudder)

I think anyone telling another when such a major change in their body is a gross invasion of privacy and personal liberty.

Randall Parker said at October 28, 2003 6:56 AM:

Andy, Suppose the parents make the decision before conception or at the point of conception by changing a gene from the variations they have to some variation that also occurs in the human population that causes later puberty. Is that a violation of privacy and liberty?

More generally, would you oppose the use of genetic engineering of offspring before or at the point of conception for other purposes such as raising IQ?

Also, do you oppose the administration of growth hormone to young children to make them taller?

Also, if a drug became available that would boost IQ if delivered during adolescence would you oppose that as well?

Andy Janes said at October 28, 2003 7:40 AM:

'Suppose the parents make the decision before conception or at the point of conception by changing a gene from the variations they have to some variation that also occurs in the human population that causes later puberty. Is that a violation of privacy and liberty?'

Depends on your view on if parents have a right to modify their offspring at all. I'm still unsure as to whether its a good idea or not, and will wait until it becomes a real issue before deciding.

'More generally, would you oppose the use of genetic engineering of offspring before or at the point of conception for other purposes such as raising IQ?'

Depends on the modifications proposed. I think eliminating genetic diseases is a good idea- but then where do you draw the line? Is left-handedness a defect?

'Also, do you oppose the administration of growth hormone to young children to make them taller?'

Again, depends on the circumstances. I assume you mean giving growth hormone to kids that lack it so they end up average height, not because the parents want little johnny to be a pro basketball star.

'Also, if a drug became available that would boost IQ if delivered during adolescence would you oppose that as well?'

Again, depends on if the kids want to take it- parents often assume that they know best for their offspring and make them do activities they hate because it will do them some good.

As for the issue for who would pay for this hypothetical drug- would it be avalible for all or just the rich- lets not even go there...

Bob Badour said at October 28, 2003 4:40 PM:

In an environment of multi-generational welfare dependency, the ability to delay puberty could have unintended consequences. I suspect the parents of those most likely to conceive early are exactly those parents least likely to delay their child's puberty. We could see a further split in society with one cohort delaying maturity and conceiving fewer children and with another cohort conceiving at ever younger ages to receive transfer payments.

Of course, the state could make welfare contingent on the children all delaying puberty until a certain age or until after achieving some scholastic goal.

Patrick said at October 28, 2003 5:05 PM:

No, let's DO go there!

We could see wealthy children (either wealthy within our society, or wealthy as in ALL westerners are wealthy compared to the rest of the world) reaching puberty at 21, while the poor children reach it at half that age.

This will lead to:

The current disparity in birth-rates between rich and poor is amplified

With no wealthy or middle class teen pregnancies, tolerance of teen births OR abortions is likely to nose-dive.
Current sexualization of teen culture may reverse – leading to a de-sexualization of modern culture as a whole.

The contrast between the “innocence” of future teen culture and the sexuality of the poor will lead to interesting tensions.

Note that previous cultures had non-sexual teen behaviour, but they had strong cultural enforcers to prevent the otherwise natural behaviour. This new culture will not need such suppression, and so will give free rein to those kids who ARE sexual.

On the other hand, later puberty may lead to MORE strife. Currently it strikes young, and rather small, children, who are subject to parental discipline through financial, educational and even physical means. If this is delayed until the person is a financially independent, fully grown adult there is the scope for much more misbehaviour than at present.

Ray said at October 29, 2003 8:01 AM:

I wonder whether the development of the brain towards what we consider intellectual/emotional maturity isn't an integral part of the same process as puberty. If so, one couldn't really delay puberty without denying the benefits you cite ...

Randall Parker said at October 29, 2003 8:50 AM:

Ray, I'm aware of this potentially large downside and intend to try to find more information on this point. But I cited several benefits. Most of them have no chance of being prevented by a delay in puberty. The only one that might be a problem would be a delay in brain development. That would be a big problem. There are indications that this is the case. See my post: Adolescence Is Tough On The Brain. That's the biggest potential downside to this idea.

Vansen said at September 27, 2004 1:11 PM:

A delay in puberty might not be so smart in the event that we ever had to revert to an ancestral state of order. We are tailoring ourselves to fit nicely with our culture's expectations, not nature's.

Jim said at August 10, 2005 2:54 AM:

It could be a good thing to delay puberty until a child reaches the age of consent, or 18.
However, legal age limits are based on a persons physical and mental maturity. Alcohol is not sold to adolecents because it is dangerous to thair body, it is illegal for an adolecent to have sexual intercorse because they are not yet mentally mature. The idea is that by the age of 16-18 a person would be both physicly and mentaly mature, delaying this would mean that age limits would need to be later. Delaying puberty doesnt solve much, it just means that people would be children for longer, and people in thair 20s would be the adolecents rather than the teens.
Also, if the idea would be to delay the onset of puberty until they where indipendant, adolecents would be fending for themselves during immotionally, the most difficult time in thair lives, this would cause allot more people in mental hospitals.

Northern Visitor said at January 6, 2006 8:49 PM:

Can anyone help me? I'm interested in learning more about this stuff. I have a special child with a "syndrome" and she's growing pretty fast. She's only 10 but is the size of a 12 to 13 year-old. There are a few signs of "puberty" and I'm worried about what comes next. Thanks!

Michelle said at January 13, 2006 9:47 AM:

This subject is interesting.
I didn't go through puberty until I was 17 and even then I didn't really develop until the age of 19, I started 10th grade
when I was 15 but I had the physical appearance of a 4th grader
and my height was only 4'2. many of the kids at the 4th grade level were taller than I was.
I was teased everyday to the point of tears, telling me that I looked
like a 4th grader, asked if I was on a field trip from the 4th grade,
the teasing didn't stop. I had told my mom that if I was able to go back to 4th grade that I would probably get along better since appearance wise I fit right in with them. The school was against the idea at first but they knew about the teasing I went through
and how relentless it was and they agreed that I would be able to get along with students who I had the same age appearance with.
In November of 1977 he school transfered me to the elementary school into the 4th grade as a new student using my moms last name instead of my dads (they were divorced). I got along with the kids just fine and eventually graduated from high school with the class of 86 and from the very high school I was transferred from, and after repeating 6 years of school.

The only downside at first to all of of it was that my mom started to treat me as 9 year old 4th grader on the day I started 4th grade again, my style of clothes was changed to that of a 9 year old instead of my real age so I would fit in better, I had chores, curfews and was grounded sometimes. I got used to it very quickly and got to be a kid again :), how many people can say that?
On what would have been My 18th birthday(dec of 1980), we celebrated it as only my 12th.

All in all I turned out fine, I have no regrets, I wouldn't change anything about it even if I could.


Chris said at October 5, 2009 1:07 PM:

As a victim of early puberty myself, I strongly support treatments to delay puberty. The arguments in the article are all very valid, especially the ones about reducing the risk for some forms of cancer later in life, and the one about it reducing teenage pregnancy. However, one doesn't have to wait until this gene therapy has been perfected. There are puberty-blocking medications which are sometimes given to transsexual kids. These medications don't cause one to adopt the traits of the opposite sex, but instead stop pubertal changes from occuring, until the child is old enough to decide whether or not to pursue sex change. This decision is usually made at around age 16. I wish that I had been given this medication when I started developing at nine years old. It should be made available to anybody who wants it.

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