DHEA, the hormone that could help support early pregnancy

Thanks to new research, a hormone has been identified that could support pregnancy in its early stages, when the fertilized egg cell implants in the uterus.

This hormone could help prepare the lining of the uterus for pregnancy, a crucial event that allows the fertilized egg to attach to the endometrium.

The discovery, made by analyzing the endometrium of women in their 40s, could help scientists develop techniques to improve fertility.

Promote implantation in utero

Every month, as part of the menstrual cycle, hormones send chemical signals to the cells lining the uterus to create conditions to sustain pregnancy. Fertilized egg cells are extremely sensitive to changes in the endometrium, but the exact environment needed for successful implantation is currently unknown.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh tested the effects of a hormone known as DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone hormone) on healthy tissue donated by women undergoing surgery.

They found thattreating cells lining the uterus with DHEA doubled the level of key proteins associated with healthy implantation in endometrial tissue.

DHEA treatment also increased the production of active androgens — hormones found in high levels in males — suggesting that these may be involved in improvement.

The study therefore suggests that DHEA levels may also play a role in infertility in later life.

What is DHEA?

Dehydroepiandrosterone, or “DHEA,” is a steroid hormone produced primarily in the adrenal glands. The ovaries also naturally release small amounts of DHEA. It is precursor of both male and female hormones.

The woman produces about 25 mg of DHEA per day. Natural DHEA production peaks when women reach age 20 and gradually decline as they age. Around the age of 40, DHEA levels drop to about 50% and will decline further as the years go by.

Could DHEA treatments improve fertility?

It is still too early to say that DHEA treatments help women with fertility problems.

According to Dr. Douglas Gibson, from the MRC Center for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh, and lead author of the study, ‘A fertilized egg will only implant if the conditions are right and we are excited to see that DHEA and androgens could help improve this environment. The findings will help us develop studies for potential therapies, but more research is needed before we can say whether this approach could be used to help women who are struggling to conceive.”

Dr. Stephen Meader, Program Manager for Reproductive Health at the MRC, added: “This study is important in learning more about what is required for successful implantation and a healthy pregnancy. This research may be in its early stages, but it’s worth exploring as it lays the groundwork for uncovering potential treatments that can help women conceive.

Kathryn Barlow is an OB/GYN doctor, which is the medical specialty that deals with the care of women's reproductive health, including pregnancy and childbirth.

Obstetricians provide care to women during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, while gynecologists focus on the health of the female reproductive system, including the ovaries, uterus, vagina, and breasts. OB/GYN doctors are trained to provide medical and surgical care for a wide range of conditions related to women's reproductive health.

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