Genetic evidence of gender difference in autism spectrum disorder supports the female-protective effect

Transl Psychiatry. 2020 Jan 15;10(1):4. doi: 10.1038/s41398-020-0699-8.


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder with a male-to-female prevalence of 4:1. However, the genetic mechanisms underlying this gender difference remain unclear. Mutation burden analysis, a TADA model, and co-expression and functional network analyses were performed on de novo mutations (DNMs) and corresponding candidate genes. We found that the prevalence of putative functional DNMs (loss-of-function and predicted deleterious missense mutations) in females was significantly higher than that in males, suggesting that a higher genetic load was required in females to reach the threshold for a diagnosis. We then prioritized 174 candidate genes, including 60 shared genes, 91 male-specific genes, and 23 female-specific genes. All of the three subclasses of candidate genes were significantly more frequently co-expressed in female brains than male brains, suggesting that compensation effects of the deficiency of ASD candidate genes may be more likely in females. Nevertheless, the three subclasses of candidate genes were co-expressed with each other, suggesting a convergent functional network of male and female-specific genes. Our analysis of different aspects of genetic components provides suggestive evidence supporting the female-protective effect in ASD. Moreover, further study is needed to integrate neuronal and hormonal data to elucidate the underlying gender difference in ASD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder* / genetics
  • Brain
  • DNA Mutational Analysis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics