Developmental effects of androgens in the human brain

J Neuroendocrinol. 2018 Feb;30(2). doi: 10.1111/jne.12486.


Neuroendocrine theories of brain development posit that androgens play a crucial role in sex-specific cortical growth, although little is known about the differential effects of testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) on cortico-limbic development and cognition during adolescence. In this context, the National Institutes of Health Study of Normal Brain Development, a longitudinal study of typically developing children and adolescents aged 4-24 years (n=433), offers a unique opportunity to examine the developmental effects of androgens on cortico-limbic maturation and cognition. Using data from this sample, our group found that higher testosterone levels were associated with left-sided decreases in cortical thickness (CTh) in post-pubertal boys, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, compared to right-sided increases in CTh in somatosensory areas in pre-pubertal girls. Prefrontal-amygdala and prefrontal-hippocampal structural covariance (considered to reflect structural connectivity) also varied according to testosterone levels, with the testosterone-related brain phenotype predicting higher aggression levels and lower executive function, particularly in boys. By contrast, DHEA was associated with a pre-pubertal increase in CTh of several regions involved in cognitive control in both boys and girls. Covariance within several cortico-amygdalar structural networks also varied as a function of DHEA levels, with the DHEA-related brain phenotype predicting improvements in visual attention in both boys and girls. DHEA-related cortico-hippocampal structural covariance, on the other hand, predicted higher scores on a test of working memory. Interestingly, there were significant interactions between testosterone and DHEA, such that DHEA tended to mitigate the anti-proliferative effects of testosterone on brain structure. In sum, testosterone-related effects on the developing brain may lead to detrimental effects on cortical functions (ie, higher aggression and lower executive function), whereas DHEA-related effects may optimise cortical functions (ie, better attention and working memory), perhaps by decreasing the influence of amygdalar and hippocampal afferents on cortical functions.

Keywords: dehydroepiandrosterone; adolescence; brain development; brain structure; puberty; testosterone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Aggression / physiology
  • Androgens / metabolism*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Sexual Maturation / physiology
  • Young Adult


  • Androgens