Column One: Why this UCLA professor is studying female animals to gain insights into women’s health
In early 2017, Dr. Carol J. Dlouhy, a UCLA psychologist, was leading a study of female rats as part of her Ph.D. dissertation research on “women’s health, specifically the role of the hormone oxytocin.” She was collecting samples of oxytocin for her study, as well as the brains of male wild mice, when she found something surprising: The female rodents she was studying produced far less of the opioid hormone when they were in heat.
“I was surprised,” she told me. “It was a very tiny amount, only about a tenth of what’s found in a human man’s brain.” She had expected the female rats to produce more oxytocin when it was time for heat to strike.
Oxytocin, which is made by the pituitary gland, is a powerful hormone that helps bond females to each other during ovulation. It’s what triggers breastfeeding, acts as a stress reliever, and, as Dr. Dlouhy’s study found, is linked to trust and social bonding, all functions essential for long-term motherhood.
“This is a huge discovery for women,” Dr. Dlouhy says. “There are lots of little things, like hormones and brain chemicals, that are so important for women, especially during reproduction.”
It’s one thing to prove something can happen. It’s quite another to understand why it happens. “A lot of the research, particularly in social science areas, is about why things occur,” Dr. Dlouhy said. “But we need to understand the things that are happening.”
This is what Dr. Dlouhy meant when she referred to the study as research on “the roles of hormonal changes during pregnancy, especially during the peri-conception period, to maternal bonding and attachment and oxytocin for bonding and attachment.”
To do her research, she chose to use a different animal model, studying female wild mice, rather than the lab