Genes and Pathways Regulated by Androgens in Human Neural Cells, Potential Candidates for the Male Excess in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Aug 15;84(4):239-252. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2018.01.002. Epub 2018 Jan 9.


Background: Prenatal exposure to androgens during brain development in male individuals may participate to increase their susceptibility to develop neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disability. However, little is known about the action of androgens in human neural cells.

Methods: We used human neural stem cells differentiated from embryonic stem cells to investigate targets of androgens.

Results: RNA sequencing revealed that treatment with dihydrotestosterone (DHT) leads to subtle but significant changes in the expression of about 200 genes, encoding proteins of extracellular matrix or involved in signal transduction of growth factors (e.g., insulin/insulin growth factor 1). We showed that the most differentially expressed genes (DEGs), RGCC, RNF144B, NRCAM, TRIM22, FAM107A, IGFBP5, and LAMA2, are reproducibly regulated by different androgens in different genetic backgrounds. We showed, by overexpressing the androgen receptor in neuroblastoma cells SH-SY5Y or knocking it down in human neural stem cells, that this regulation involves the androgen receptor. A chromatin immunoprecipitation combined with direct sequencing analysis identified androgen receptor-bound sequences in nearly half of the DHT-DEGs and in numerous other genes. DHT-DEGs appear enriched in genes involved in ASD (ASXL3, NLGN4X, etc.), associated with ASD (NRCAM), or differentially expressed in patients with ASD (FAM107A, IGFBP5). Androgens increase human neural stem cell proliferation and survival in nutrient-deprived culture conditions, with no detectable effect on regulation of neurite outgrowth.

Conclusions: We characterized androgen action in neural progenitor cells, identifying DHT-DEGs that appear to be enriched in genes related to ASD. We also showed that androgens increase proliferation of neuronal precursors and protect them from death during their differentiation in nutrient-deprived conditions.

Keywords: Androgen receptor; Androgens; Autism spectrum disorder; Gene expression; Neural progenitor cells; Sex bias.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / pharmacology*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / etiology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / genetics*
  • Cell Differentiation / drug effects
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Survival
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dihydrotestosterone / pharmacology*
  • Female
  • Gene Expression / drug effects*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Stem Cells / drug effects
  • Neural Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Androgen / metabolism
  • Sequence Analysis, RNA
  • Sex Factors


  • Androgens
  • Receptors, Androgen
  • Dihydrotestosterone