Dr. Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff explains the impact of stress on puberty

Dr. Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff
Expiration Date: 
Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Dr. Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff, who joined our department last February, used her expertise in stress and sex hormones to weigh in on a conversation in Discover Magazine examining the causes of early puberty. Dr. Shirtcliff researches hormones by analyzing noninvasive biospecimens like saliva and hair in the Center for Translational Neuroscience and UO Biomarker Cluster.

In the Discover Magazine article, they explain that since the 1970’s puberty has started increasingly earlier in kids. Although this trend likely has several causes, researchers have been able to identify a few key factors: stress and weight gain. Dr. Shirtcliff walks readers through the impact of stress on puberty: “Inhibitory neurotransmitters like GABA shut puberty down until GNRH begins to release pulses of hormones like estrogen and testosterone, allowing the body to begin developing. Stress from things like abuse allow pulses of sex hormones to eek out and when this happens too often, the system goes gangbusters and a child starts developing early.” She goes on to explain how obesity connects to this process.

Currently, Dr. Shirtcliff is working on an exciting new method of studying hormonal responses to stressors: Virtual Reality (VR). Most research on human stress response is done using social stressors. For example, measuring a participants’ hormonal response while they give a presentation to a group of people or complete difficult math problems. VR provides a way of stimulating stress using physical stressors instead. Without VR, there are several ethical barriers to using physical stressors. Researchers can’t perch participants on top of high buildings to stimulate stress, but they can using VR. Dr. Shirtcliff and her students recently published a meta-analysis on the use of VR to stimulate stress hormones, showing that it can stimulate a robust stress response.

This recent meta-analysis highlights one of Dr. Shirtcliff’s favorite parts of academia: being able to share in the enthusiasm of learning. She loves being able to work with young scholars and share her love of knowledge with them. But research isn’t her only interest! Dr. Shirtcliff has two goats, named Alice Cooper and Siouxsie Banshee, who she takes for regular walks in Hendricks Park and spoils tremendously.