Prenatal androgen influences on the brain: A review, critique, and illustration of research on congenital adrenal hyperplasia

Adriene M. Beltz, Michael I. Demidenko, Stephen J. Wilson, Sheri A. Berenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Sex hormones, especially androgens, contribute to sex and gender differences in the brain and behavior. Organizational effects are particularly important because they are thought to be permanent, reflecting hormone exposure during sensitive periods of development. In human beings, they are often studied with natural experiments in which sex hormones are dissociated from other biopsychosocial aspects of development, such as genes and experiences. Indeed, the greatest evidence for organizational effects on sex differences in human behavior comes from studies of females with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), who have heightened prenatal androgen exposure, female-typical rearing, and masculinized toy play, activity and career interests, spatial skills, and some personal characteristics. Interestingly, however, neuroimaging studies of females with CAH have revealed few neural mechanisms underlying these hormone-behavior links, with the exception of emotion processing; studies have instead shown reduced gray matter volumes and reduced white matter integrity most consistent with other disease-related processes. The goals of this narrative review are to: (a) describe methods for studying prenatal androgen influences, while offering a brief overview of behavioral outcomes; (b) provide a critical methodological review of neuroimaging research on females with CAH; (c) present an illustrative analysis that overcomes methodological limitations of previous work, focusing on person-specific neural reward networks (and their associations with sensation seeking) in women with CAH and their unaffected sisters in order to inform future research questions and approaches that are most likely to reveal organizational hormone effects on brain structure and function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)563-574
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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