Is it possible to artificially jump-start the onset of puberty?
May 18, 2007 3:48 PM   Subscribe

Question for a short story, not a creepy science experiment: is it possible to jump-start the onset of puberty through hormone injections or other means?

I'm sorry that this is such a creepy question (it's a dark, dystopian scenario). Without divulging too much, my story concerns a group of 8-10 year olds who are accelerated both intellectually and physically. (It's not an Ender's Game ripoff). I'd like to ground the physical acceleration in science, if it is in fact scientifically feasible to force the onset of puberty. If not, I'll make something up. It's not hard sci-fi.

Bonus points for references to any actual experiments to this end.

Thanks very much.
posted by scarylarry to Science & Nature (13 answers total)
Yes you can, it's called Precocious puberty and it can be caused by the abnormal release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). GnRH is actually injected to stimulate puberty in the treatment of delayed puberty.
posted by TungstenChef at 4:01 PM on May 18, 2007

Precocious Puberty is a very real medical conditon caused by a hormonal imbalance. The linked E-medicine article goes into great depth about the exact causes, so I won't bother repeating that.

But basically, it would be possible to somehow induce that condition in a child by injecting testoterone and estrogen-inhibitors into a male, and follicle stimulating hormoe and leutinizing hormone (FSH, LH) in the appropriate cyclical dosage to a female.

Also some of the ultra-liberal friends I had in college never drank anything other than hormone-free organic milk because they felt that by consuming bovine hormones their children would be at higher risk for precocious puberty. I haven't looked into the scientific background behind this myth so it's more of a urban legend as far as I know.
posted by ruwan at 4:03 PM on May 18, 2007

girls are entering puberty much earlier than is probably more attributable to better nutrition than anything else. i remember hearing that girls tend to hit puberty whenever they hit about 95 pounds (on average, of course), and girls are reaching that weight at a younger age.

i don't know about ingesting hormones through food--i would imagine stomach acids would destroy the chemicals, but i am not a scientist. however, we manipulate our hormones and our reproduction medically already--transsexuals take hormone supplements to help develop their secondary sex characteristics (body hair, breasts, etc) so i think it would not be a great leap to say that injecting these hormones into young children would jumpstart puberty.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:16 PM on May 18, 2007

you know what, i take it back. women take birth control and hormone replacement pills all the time, which are ingested and obviously survive digestion to do their jobs. i'm a dope.

so maybe the liberal college girls mentioned above weren't total crackpots? :)
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:17 PM on May 18, 2007

It's actually not that far off the mark to see 8-10 year old girls entering puberty nowadays - see this article on new guidelines for pediatricians for determining whether to slow down puberty in girls that age bracket. Basically, it's not considered necessary because it's not "abnormal" anymore, more girls (especially African-American girls) are beginning to enter puberty at 7 and 8 years old.

Articles (scientific and otherwise) on theories as to why the age of puberty is dropping are fairly easy to find. As ruwan mentions, some folks think its related to all the hormones in our food, chemicals in our plastics, all kinds of things. I personally don't know if that's paranoia or not, but here are just a few articles from a couple minutes googling "early onset puberty"

Secondary Sexual Characteristics and Menses in Young Girls Seen in Office Practice: A Study from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings Network
Early puberty: Obesity, environment suspected
Childhood obesity brings early puberty for girls
What's causing early puberty? New findings point to environmental estrogens.

Some interesting data and information here on the average age of menarche around the world.

Conversely - if you want to delay puberty, be a devoted gymnast.
posted by nelleish at 4:17 PM on May 18, 2007

Some hormones make it through the digestive system, some don't. If I were writing the story I'd just go for the injections. Guaranteed to work, and sounds like injecting kids will suit the story better than just chucking them some pills.
posted by edd at 4:22 PM on May 18, 2007

"My Year of Meats" by Ruth L. Ozeki includes a plotline in which a very young girl, about three I think, reaches puberty because she has spent a lot of time being exposed to growth hormones on a ranch.

I don't remember all the details, but the book is worth a read.
posted by brina at 4:56 PM on May 18, 2007

You could do a little research into transsexuals. That will tell you quite a bit about artificial manipulation of sex hormones, what it's like, what the dangers are, when it's most effective, and more. You'll also learn that male and female hormones behave very differently and have different side effects.
posted by chairface at 7:04 PM on May 18, 2007

I recently read (within the last year) of a case involving two young siblings developing public hair (and aggressive behavior issues in the case of the son.) They found high levels of blood testosterone in these kids. The hormone was being passed from a topical ointment their father was using (allegedly to increase libido or some such nonsense.)

I wish I can recall the news source...I seem to think it was reputable one. In fact, it may have even been the New York Times.
posted by dendrite at 9:08 PM on May 18, 2007

Just an anecdote, not an oldest son entered puberty about five years early (he has ADD as well, they were diagnosed at about the same time). One of the consequences of this is that is that he probably will not achieve his genetically programmed height. Not that he's short...right around 5'11", but his doctor thinks he basically skipped that final growth spurt a lot of boys go through in their mid-teens (he's 17 now). His younger brother, who is 12 and progressing normally, is only an inch shorter and will probably bypass him.

Though #1 son was taller than his classmates, there was no serious consideration of slowing puberty...he had plenty of other problems that needed treatment, and that was the least of them!
posted by lhauser at 9:08 PM on May 18, 2007

I found the article:

Preschool Puberty, and a Search for the Causes at the New York Times.
posted by dendrite at 9:10 PM on May 18, 2007


Weird, because that sounded exactly like the plot of this episode of House, M.D. (My new favorite show). It wouldn't surprise me at all if they got the idea for their story from an account of the events you reference.
posted by Clay201 at 11:43 PM on May 18, 2007

Not puberty exactly, but I heard a story on NPR a couple of years ago (god, maybe 4 years ago now?) about parents pressuring doctors to prescribe HGH (human growth hormone) to their children so that they would grow taller than they would normally. Both for sports achievement reasons, and overall "taller people are perceived to be more successful" reasons.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:41 AM on May 19, 2007

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