Sexual orientation, fraternal birth order, and the maternal immune hypothesis: a review

Front Neuroendocrinol. 2011 Apr;32(2):247-54. doi: 10.1016/j.yfrne.2011.02.004. Epub 2011 Feb 17.


In 1996, psychologists Ray Blanchard and Anthony Bogaert found evidence that gay men have a greater number of older brothers than do heterosexual men. This "fraternal birth order" (FBO) effect has been replicated numerous times, including in non-Western samples. More recently, strong evidence has been found that the FBO effect is of prenatal origin. Although there is no direct support for the exact prenatal mechanism, the most plausible explanation may be immunological in origin, i.e., a mother develops an immune reaction against a substance important in male fetal development during pregnancy, and that this immune effect becomes increasingly likely with each male gestation. This immune effect is hypothesized to cause an alteration in (some) later born males' prenatal brain development. The target of the immune response may be molecules (i.e., Y-linked proteins) on the surface of male fetal brain cells, including in sites of the anterior hypothalamus, which has been linked to sexual orientation in other research. Antibodies might bind to these molecules and thus alter their role in typical sexual differentiation, leading some later born males to be attracted to men as opposed to women. Here we review evidence in favor of this hypothesis, including recent research showing that mothers of boys develop an immune response to one Y-linked protein (i.e., H-Y antigen; SMCY) important in male fetal development, and that this immune effect becomes increasingly likely with each additional boy to which a mother gives birth. We also discuss other Y-linked proteins that may be relevant if this hypothesis is correct. Finally, we discuss issues in testing the maternal immune hypothesis of FBO.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Birth Order / psychology*
  • Brain / embryology
  • Brain / immunology
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / immunology*
  • Histone Demethylases
  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase / immunology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Minor Histocompatibility Antigens
  • Models, Biological
  • Mothers
  • Pregnancy
  • SOXB1 Transcription Factors / immunology
  • Sex Differentiation / immunology*
  • Sexual Behavior / physiology*
  • Siblings*
  • Transducin / genetics


  • Minor Histocompatibility Antigens
  • SOX1 protein, human
  • SOXB1 Transcription Factors
  • TBL1Y protein, human
  • Histone Demethylases
  • KDM5D protein, human
  • Histone-Lysine N-Methyltransferase
  • Transducin