Is there an association between prenatal testosterone and autistic traits in adolescents?

Niamh Dooley*, Amber Ruigrok, Rosemary Holt, Carrie Allison, Alexandros Tsompanidis, Jack Waldman, Bonnie Auyeung, Michael V. Lombardo, Simon Baron-Cohen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Prenatal testosterone (pT) is a crucial component in physiological masculinization in humans. In line with the Prenatal Sex Steroid Theory of autism, some studies have found a positive correlation between pT and autistic traits in childhood. However, effects in adolescence have not been explored. Hormonal and environmental changes occurring during puberty may alter the strength or the nature of prenatal effects on autistic traits. The current study examines if pT relates to autistic traits in a non-clinical sample of adolescents and young adults (N = 97, 170 observations; age 13–21 years old). It also explores pT interactions with pubertal stage and timing. PT concentrations were measured from amniotic fluid extracted in the 2nd trimester of gestation via amniocentesis conducted for clinical purposes. Autistic traits were measured by self- and parent-reports on the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) which provides a total score and 5 sub-scores (social skills, communication, imagination, attention switching and attention to detail). Self-reported pubertal stage was regressed on age to provide a measure of relative timing. We found no statistical evidence for a direct association between pT and autistic traits in this adolescent sample (males, females or full sample). Exploratory analyses suggested that pT correlated positively with autistic traits in adolescents with earlier puberty-onset, but statistical robustness of this finding was limited. Further exploratory post-hoc tests suggested the pT-by-pubertal timing interaction was stronger in males relative to females, in self-reported compared to parent-reported AQ and specifically for social traits. These findings require replication in larger samples. Findings have implications for understanding the effects of pT on human behavior, specifically existence of effects in adolescence.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105623
JournalPsychoneuroendocrinology
Volume136
Early online date5 Dec 2021
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • amniotic fluid
  • autism
  • fetal development
  • prenatal testosterone
  • puberty

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