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The Scientists Who Explore Human Hormones In 'Aroused'


What do sleep, sex, insulin, mood and hunger have in common? Well, they're all controlled by hormones. But just a century ago, the power of our chemical messengers was barely understood. A new book by Dr. Randi Hutter Epstein called "Aroused" tells the stories of the scientists who work to explore and explain our hormones. Dr. Epstein joins us now from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

RANDI HUTTER EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The book is organized around stories from key moments in hormone research. And I have to say, many of the studies they were doing in the early days were pretty gruesome.

EPSTEIN: When we say study, we tend now to think of the randomised clinical controlled trial. You know, you have one sample here. You compare it to another. When they were doing studies, they were doing sort of weird experiments on people and dogs and all kind of things. So there was Harvey Cushing. He was one of the first people to talk about that pituitary tumors can really muck you up and like send a lot of hormones awry. But here's what he tried to do that didn't work out that's kind of a wacky experiment. He had a 48-year-old man that had a pituitary tumor that was making him have double vision and headaches and other endocrine issues. And Harvey Cushing thought, what if we take a nice, healthy pituitary of a baby that just died if there is a newborn that didn't make it and just implant that in this old man, and then we just revive him and he'd be back to normal. Newspapers got a hold of it, as media tends to do. And there were wonderful headlines like baby brain, you know, broken brain fixed by baby. And it went wild in terms of, wow, we can now cure broken, old brains. And, spoiler alert, let's just say that we don't replace baby pituitary glands into grownups when they have pituitary tumors anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some of what these scientists were doing, though, was actually helping people. And you tell the story of a short 7-year-old called Jeffrey Balaban.

EPSTEIN: Yes. There was this huge optimism started in the 1920s when we figured out that insulin can help diabetics. So the thinking was, if we can change diabetes - which was a deadly disease - to a chronic illness, what else can we do? So originally the thought was, let's get growth hormone from cows just the way we got insulin from cows, and we'll give it to short kids. So the Balabans are just a remarkable couple, particularly Barbara Balaban, Jeff's mom. What happened was she went - in the 1960s - with her son. She had been told your son's too short. And she just - she's short. Her husband's short. They're not the kind of people that are just going to go out and do any sort of wacky treatment for no reason. But eventually someone said, you know, maybe you should see a doctor about this, a specialist. The specialist eventually said, your son needs growth hormone but we don't have growth hormone yet. This was the early 1960s. So if you want your son to get this treatment that we think he needs, you're going to have to collect pituitaries, which come from dead bodies, and then bring them back to us, and then we'll get the growth hormone out of it. So most people would just go home and cry and say this is impossible. And Barbara did that for about a day or two. And then she thought, you know what, her husband was a psychiatrist. He knew doctors. And through her own moxie and just drive, she became one of the world - one of the nation's largest collectors of pituitary glands, third only to the National Institutes of Health and the Veterans Administration.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So where are we now with hormone research?

EPSTEIN: We're on the cusp of really understanding hormones and behavior. So one of the more recent findings is hunger and hormones. Among people that have a rare hormone defect that they cannot stop eating, there are some drugs in the pipeline that takes away this compulsion to eat. The fascinating thing in terms of basic science and understanding our bodies is it's not hormones and obesity here. It's not so much that you have a mucked up metabolism that you gain weight easily. It's that because of your hormone defect, you feel compelled to keep eating. So a lot of the doctors that are unraveling that basic science are saying, well, now we're at this cusp of trying to see what other behaviors can we link to hormones or hormones gone awry.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's amazing after all these decades and almost centuries of exploring the human body, we're still on the cusp of great discoveries.

EPSTEIN: We really are. And if you think, endocrinology is a pretty new field. I mean, in 1900, where - my grandma was born in 1900. I don't think of that as ancient history. The word hormone didn't exist. And to think that in 1970 when she was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a hormone issue, they went from by her birth not even having a word for this thing to 1970 they could measure her hormone defect down to a billionth of a gram. So we've made huge strides, but it's still a young field. We still have a lot more to go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Randi Hutter Epstein, her new book is "Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything." Thank you very much.

EPSTEIN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.