The causes of miscarriage, an often devastating event that occurs not infrequently in women's reproductive lives, are poorly understood. What is known is that the luteal phase of early pregnancy (the time of conception and implantation) is not only critically important to successful reproduction, it also is the phase which is the first to be suppressed when women experience stress. This research utilizes an anthropological approach to place female reproductive functioning and the spectrum of variation in luteal phase biology between women into an ecological and developmental context, focusing on a human population under moderate levels of energetic and immune function stress. The results will illuminate the causal factors relating to human variation in the luteal phase and the resulting impacts on reproduction, which are poorly understood.

This project will promote greater understanding by studying the endometrium, the site of embryo implantation and thus important to luteal phase and miscarriage research. By focusing on a non-western population in rural Poland, a comparative perspective is gained which can promote understanding of why American women experience reproductive disorders more than people in other countries. The approach places the endometrium in a broader context of the stressors experienced by women living under variable ecological stressors that may suppress its ability to support pregnancy. It also is the first-ever study of women?s systemic reproductive functioning over an entire menstrual cycle, since it includes daily urine collection for analysis of reproductive hormones and stress biomarkers, alongside ultrasound of the endometrium, demographic data, and bodily measurements of the women in this population.

This population-level research therefore will characterize the relationship between the ovaries and endometrium in an energetically and immunologically stressed, agricultural environment; study the associations between these stressors and luteal function; and provide a longitudinal perspective which can explore how developmental milestones like birth weight and age at first menstruation influence luteal function. Once baseline, normal variation in the luteal ovaries and endometrium is analyzed, future studies will be able to more fully illuminate how stressors could affect the maternal environment and drive miscarriage. The work promotes understanding of human biology far beyond what can be gained in a clinical study, yet has clinical applications for the development of safer and more effective personalized hormonal contraceptives that consider age, childhood conditions and lifestyle in their dosing structure. It also will advance scientific discovery via a structured mentoring program for underrepresented students, incorporation of the research into introductory and advanced coursework, and by widely disseminating this anthropological perspective and research results to the general public using the PI's standing as an award-winning blogger at Scientific American.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Rebecca Ferrell
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
United States
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