Is foetal hyperexposure to androgens a cause of PCOS?

Hum Reprod Update. 2017 Jul 1;23(4):421-432. doi: 10.1093/humupd/dmx013.


Background: Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrinopathy affecting reproductive-aged women. The pathophysiology of this syndrome is still not completely understood but recent evidence suggests that the intra-uterine environment may be a key factor in the pathogenesis of PCOS, in particular, hyperexposure of the foetus to androgens. High concentrations of maternal serum testosterone during pregnancy have been shown to influence behaviour during childhood, the prevalence of autism disorders and anti-Mullerian hormone (AMH) concentrations in adolescence. They are also thought to re-programme the female reproductive axis to induce the features of PCOS in later life: oligo/anovulation, polycystic ovaries, hyperandrogenism and insulin resistance (IR). Support for this developmental theory for the aetiology of PCOS is gathering momentum, following results from first animal studies and now human data, which lend credence to many aspects of this hypothesis.

Objective and rationale: In this review the recent available evidence is presented to support the hypothesis that hyperandrogenic changes in the intra-uterine environment could play a major part in the aetiological basis of PCOS.

Search methods: An extensive PubMED and MEDline database search was conducted. Relevant studies were identified using a combination of search terms: 'polycystic ovary syndrome', 'PCOS', 'aetiology', 'anti-Mullerian hormone', 'AMH', 'pathogenesis', 'kisspeptin', 'hyperandrogenism', 'insulin resistance', 'metabolic factors', 'placenta', 'developmental hypothesis', 'genetic and epigenetic origins'.

Outcomes: A total of 82 studies were finally included in this review. There is robust evidence that a hyperandrogenic intra-uterine environment 'programmes' the genes concerned with ovarian steroidogenesis, insulin metabolism, gonadotrophin secretion and ovarian follicle development resulting in the development of PCOS in adult life.

Wider implications: Once the evidence supporting this hypothesis has been expanded by additional studies, the door would be open to find innovative treatments and preventative measures for this very prevalent condition. Such measures could considerably ease the human and economic burden that PCOS creates.

Keywords: PCOS; aetiology; androgens; anti-Mullerian hormone; developmental theory; epigenetics; insulin resistance; intra-uterine environment; kisspeptin; placenta.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Anti-Mullerian Hormone / blood
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / etiology
  • Insulin Resistance
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / blood
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / etiology*
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / prevention & control
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / blood
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / etiology*
  • Risk
  • Testosterone / blood


  • Androgens
  • Testosterone
  • Anti-Mullerian Hormone