COLLEGE PARK, Md. — COVID-19 has left a lot of damage.
Physically and emotionally.
And the stress men and women are facing today could have an impact on the children of tomorrow.
"So, we set out to do a chronic stress experience on dad and then look at the timing after that stress resolved. did he pass on effect of his offspring?" said Tracy Bale, epigenetic researcher with the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Chronic, prolonged stress can cause serious health problems, like anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, obesity. and the list goes on.
Testing the Fertility of Men Under Stress
But could long-term stress, like what we are experiencing right now during this pandemic, impact the health of our next generation?
Bale's research suggests stress can have a lasting impact on future babies.
To know if stress alters sperm, University of Maryland researchers tested the theory in mice.
After male mice were given a stress hormone, researchers noted changes in their reproductive cells.
Then sperm from the stressed mice was used to fertilize an egg.
The resulting baby mice showed big changes in early brain development.
Bale then recruited male college student volunteers.
"If we could look at and measure the stress in their environments over final exams, et cetera, at that time, could we detect changes in their sperm compared to their previous month or their next month?" she said.
Researchers say they did detect changes in human sperm that were similar to those in the stressed-out mice.
While Bale and her colleagues didn't measure the impact of stress reduction on the male students, she says lifestyle habits that are good for the mind, may be good for reproductive health.
Other Research Looking at Fathers-to-Be and Stress
A study published in Fertility and Sterility, and led by researchers from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and Rutgers School of Public Health investigated whether stress may affect sperm and semen quality.
The researchers assessed 193 men aged 38 to 49 who were required to complete a series of tests that measured levels of stress, including that from the workplace, stressful life events and overall perceived stress.
They also were required to provide semen samples.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis, analyzed the semen concentration, sperm shape and movement in each sample.
They found that men who experienced two or more stressful life events in the past year had a lower percentage of sperm motility and a lower percentage of sperm of normal morphology, compared to those who did not experience any stressful events.
Researchers also found those who experienced job strains had lower levels of testosterone in their semen, which could affect reproductive health.
Is there a COVID Connection?
Bale and her colleagues did not specifically study men who were under stress during the coronavirus pandemic but the research may continue during these trying times.
While the study showed that the babies' brains developed differently if the father was chronically stressed, researchers say they still don't know whether the offspring could run the risk for mental health issues.
And it's unclear if experiencing the stress and then managing will offspring.