Prenatal testosterone levels influence later response to reward

November 05, 2012

Philadelphia, PA, November 5, 2012 - New findings led by Dr. Michael Lombardo, Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues at the University of Cambridge indicate that testosterone levels early in fetal development influence later sensitivity of brain regions related to reward processing and affect an individual's susceptibility to engage in behavior, that in extremes, are related to several neuropsychiatric conditions that asymmetrically affect one sex more than the other.

Although present at low levels in females, testosterone is one of the primary sex hormones that exerts substantial influence over the emergence of differences between males and females. In adults and adolescents, heightened testosterone has been shown to reduce fear, lower sensitivity to punishment, increase risk-tasking, and enhance attention to threat. These effects interact substantially with context to affect social behavior.

This knowledge about the effects of testosterone in adolescence and adulthood suggests that it is related to influencing the balance between approach and avoidance behavior. These same behaviors are heightened in the teenage years and also emerge in extremes in many neuropsychiatric conditions, including conduct disorder, depression, substance abuse, autism, and psychopathy.

Scientists have long known that sex differences influence many aspects of psychiatric disorders, including age of disease onset, prevalence, and susceptibility. For example, according to the World Health Organization, depression is twice as common in women than men, whereas alcohol dependence shows the reverse pattern. In addition to many other factors, sex hormone levels are likely to be important factors contributing to sex differences in psychopathology.

However, research to date has mainly focused on sex hormone levels during adolescence and adulthood, when hormone levels are heightened and built upon substantial prior developmental experience. Sex hormone levels are also heightened during critical periods of fetal brain development, but the impact of such prenatal surges in sex hormone levels on subsequent adult brain and behavioral development has received relatively little attention.

"This study is the first to directly examine whether testosterone in fetal development predicts tendencies later in life to engage in approach-related behavior (e.g., fun-seeking, impulsivity, reward responsivity) and also how it may influence later brain development that is relevant to such behaviors," said first author Lombardo.

In this study, they tested a unique cohort of boys, 8 years of age, whose fetal testosterone had been previously measured from amniotic fluid at 13 weeks gestation. The boys were scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging technology to assess changes in brain activity while viewing pictures of negative (fear), positive (happy), neutral, or scrambled faces.

They found that increased fetal testosterone predicted more sensitivity in the brain's reward system to positively, compared to negatively, valenced facial cues. This means that reward-related brain regions of boys with higher fetal testosterone levels respond more to positive facial emotion compared to negative facial emotion than boys who with smaller levels of fetal testosterone.

In addition, increased fetal testosterone levels predicted increased behavioral approach tendencies later in life via its influence on the brain's reward system. Lombardo explained, "This work highlights how testosterone in fetal development acts as a programming mechanism for shaping sensitivity of the brain's reward system later in life and for predicting later tendency to engage in approach-related behaviors. These insights may be especially relevant to a number of neuropsychiatric conditions with skewed sex ratios and which affect approach-related behavior and the brain's reward system."

Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, "These remarkable data provide new evidence that hormonal exposures early in life can have lasting impact on brain function and behavior."
-end-
The article is "Fetal Programming Effects of Testosterone on the Reward System and Behavioral Approach Tendencies in Humans" by Michael V. Lombardo, Emma Ashwin, Bonnie Auyeung, Bhismadev Chakrabarti, Meng-Chuan Lai, Kevin Taylor, Gerald Hackett, Edward T. Bullmore, and Simon Baron-Cohen (doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.05.027). The article appears in Biological Psychiatry, Volume 72, Issue 10 (November 15, 2012), published by Elsevier.

Notes for editors

Full text of the article is available to credentialed journalists upon request; contact Rhiannon Bugno at +1 214 648 0880 or Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu. Journalists wishing to interview the authors may contact Dr. Michael Lombardo at +44 (0)1223 339 428 or ml437@cam.ac.uk.

The authors' affiliations, and disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available in the article.

John H. Krystal, M.D., is Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and a research psychiatrist at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. His disclosures of financial and conflicts of interests are available here.

About Biological Psychiatry

Biological Psychiatry is the official journal of the Society of Biological Psychiatry, whose purpose is to promote excellence in scientific research and education in fields that investigate the nature, causes, mechanisms and treatments of disorders of thought, emotion, or behavior. In accord with this mission, this peer-reviewed, rapid-publication, international journal publishes both basic and clinical contributions from all disciplines and research areas relevant to the pathophysiology and treatment of major psychiatric disorders.

The journal publishes novel results of original research which represent an important new lead or significant impact on the field, particularly those addressing genetic and environmental risk factors, neural circuitry and neurochemistry, and important new therapeutic approaches. Reviews and commentaries that focus on topics of current research and interest are also encouraged.

Biological Psychiatry is one of the most selective and highly cited journals in the field of psychiatric neuroscience. It is ranked 5th out of 129 Psychiatry titles and 16th out of 243 Neurosciences titles in the Journal Citations Reports® published by Thomson Reuters. The 2011 Impact Factor score for Biological Psychiatry is 8.283.

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services. The company works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and close to 20,000 book titles, including major reference works from Mosby and Saunders. Elsevier's online solutions include ScienceDirect, Scopus, Reaxys, ClinicalKey and Mosby's Nursing Suite, which enhance the productivity of science and health professionals, and the SciVal suite and MEDai's Pinpoint Review, which help research and health care institutions deliver better outcomes more cost-effectively.

A global business headquartered in Amsterdam, Elsevier employs 7,000 people worldwide. The company is part of Reed Elsevier Group PLC, a world-leading publisher and information provider, which is jointly owned by Reed Elsevier PLC and Reed Elsevier NV. The ticker symbols are REN (Euronext Amsterdam), REL (London Stock Exchange), RUK and ENL (New York Stock Exchange).

Media contact

Rhiannon Bugno
Editorial Office
+1 214 648 0880
Biol.Psych@utsouthwestern.edu

Elsevier

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