Does early androgen exposure contribute to autistic traits?

Last updated 15 June 2021

Researchers in Hong Kong and Cambridge have explored the influence of early androgen exposure on autistic traits during childhood. It has been proposed that higher levels of androgens (such as testosterone) during early life might contribute to the development of autistic traits, and that this might explain why autism is more common in males than females. Karson Kung and colleagues collected data from 97 boys and 110 girls from the Cambridge Baby Growth Study. They measured the anogenital distance (AGD) and penile length — two putative biomarkers of early androgen exposure — at birth and at 3 months-of-age. Then they assessed autistic traits via a parent-reported questionnaire when the child reached 9-13 years-of-age. Consistent with previous studies,1,2 they found no significant associations between the two androgen exposure biomarkers and autistic traits in boys, girls or both sexes combined. Assuming that AGD and penile length are accurate biomarkers, it seems that early androgen exposure might not explain the sex bias observed in autism.

Referring to

Kung, K. T. F. et al. (2020), J. Child Psychol. Psychiatr. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13335.

References

1Kung, K.T.F. et al. (2016). No relationship between early postnatal testosterone and autistic traits in 18 to 30-month-old children. Mol. Autism. 7, 15. doi: 10.1186/s13229-016-0078-8.

2Kung, K.T.F. et al. (2016). No relationship between prenatal androgen exposure and autistic traits: Convergent evidence from studies of children with congenital adrenal hyperplasia and of amniotic testosterone concentrations in typically-developing children. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatr. 57, 1455-1462. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.12602.

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Dr Jessica Edwards
Jessica received her MA in Biological Sciences and her DPhil in Neurobehavioural Genetics from the University of Oxford (Magdalen College). After completing her post-doctoral research, she moved into scientific editing and publishing, first working for Spandidos Publications (London, UK) and then moving to Nature Publishing Group. Jessica is now a freelance editor and science writer, and started writing for “The Bridge” in December 2017.

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