Elevated fetal steroidogenic activity in autism

Mol Psychiatry. 2015 Mar;20(3):369-76. doi: 10.1038/mp.2014.48. Epub 2014 Jun 3.


Autism affects males more than females, giving rise to the idea that the influence of steroid hormones on early fetal brain development may be one important early biological risk factor. Utilizing the Danish Historic Birth Cohort and Danish Psychiatric Central Register, we identified all amniotic fluid samples of males born between 1993 and 1999 who later received ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision) diagnoses of autism, Asperger syndrome or PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) (n=128) compared with matched typically developing controls. Concentration levels of Δ4 sex steroids (progesterone, 17α-hydroxy-progesterone, androstenedione and testosterone) and cortisol were measured with liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry. All hormones were positively associated with each other and principal component analysis confirmed that one generalized latent steroidogenic factor was driving much of the variation in the data. The autism group showed elevations across all hormones on this latent generalized steroidogenic factor (Cohen's d=0.37, P=0.0009) and this elevation was uniform across ICD-10 diagnostic label. These results provide the first direct evidence of elevated fetal steroidogenic activity in autism. Such elevations may be important as epigenetic fetal programming mechanisms and may interact with other important pathophysiological factors in autism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Asperger Syndrome / blood*
  • Autistic Disorder / blood*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Chromatography, Liquid
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark
  • Female
  • Fetus / metabolism*
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Principal Component Analysis
  • Steroids / metabolism*
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry


  • Steroids
  • Hydrocortisone