Children in Europe and other parts of the world are entering puberty at an ever younger age. The reasons for this are unknown, and the EU is now financing a major three-year project called PIONEER in a determined effort to get to the root of the problem. Two Swedish research groups are involved in the project, both from Karolinska Institutet.
The onset of puberty is determined by a string of factors, such as environment, physiology and heredity, but just how they interact remains a mystery. It is also unclear why puberty is starting at ever-younger ages, but scientists think that it can be the result of a combination of environmental factors. PIONEER comprises twelve research groups, all of which will be tackling the puzzle from different angles. Most of the groups are working on the theory that a greater intake of calories has a significant part to play, while others will also be looking at hormone-like substances in the environment. Researchers at KI’s Department of Woman and Child Health, however, will for the most part be studying whether the production of male and female sexual hormones is greater in overfed animals than in undernourished ones.
“It’s important to find out the cause of this problem as the early onset of puberty affects a large number of children and can eventually give rise to new reproductive patterns,” says Professor Olle Söder, vice coordinator of PIONEER at KI. “It’s also been shown that girls who reach puberty early are affected in a way that can have consequences for their future, both socially and financially. It’s also conceivable that early puberty is the outcome of external factors in the environment. It’s therefore important to identify these factors so that we can take whatever action is necessary.”