A form of secondary ovarian insufficiency (SOI) due to adrenal hypoandrogenism as new infertility diagnosis

Endocrine. 2021 Apr;72(1):260-267. doi: 10.1007/s12020-020-02512-0. Epub 2020 Oct 2.


Background: Mediated via the androgen receptor on granulosa cells, models of small growing follicle stages demonstrate dependence on testosterone. Androgen deficiency reduces ovarian response to follicle stimulation hormone (FSH), granulosa cell mass and estradiol (E2) production falls and FSH, therefore, rises. Though potentially of adrenal and/or ovarian origin, androgen deficiency in association with female infertility is almost universally primarily of adrenal origin, raising the possibility that women with presumptive diagnosis of primary ovarian insufficiency (POI), also called primary ovarian failure (POF) may actually suffer from secondary ovarian insufficiency (SOI) due to adrenal hypoandrogenism that leads to follicular arrest at small-growing follicle stages.

Methods: This retrospective cohort study was performed in a private, academically affiliated infertility center in New York City. We searched the center's anonymized electronic research data bank for consecutive patients who presented with a diagnosis of POI, defined by age <41 year, FSH > 40.0 mIU/mL, amenorrhea for at least 6 month, and low testosterone (T), defined as total T (TT) in the lowest age-specific quartile of normal range. This study did not include patients with oophoritis. Since dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) is the only androgen almost exclusively produce by adrenals, adrenal hypoandrogenism was defined by DHEAS < 100ug/dL. Thirteen of 78 presumed POI women (16.67%) qualified and represented the original study population. POI patients are usually treated with third-party egg donation; 6/13, however, rejected egg donation for personal or religious reasons and insisted on undergoing at least one last IVF cycle attempt (final study population). In preparation, they were supplemented with DHEA 25 mg TID and CoQ10 333 mg TID for at least 6 weeks prior to ovarian stimulation for IVF with FSH and human menopausal gonadotropins (hMG). Since POI patients are expected to be resistant to ovarian stimulation, primary outcome for the study was ovarian response, while secondary outcome was pregnancy/delivery.

Results: Though POI/POF patients usually are completely unresponsive to ovarian stimulation, to our surprise, 5/6 (83.3%) patients demonstrated an objective follicle response. In addition, 2/6 (33.3%) conceived spontaneously between IVF cycles, while on DHEA and CoQ10 supplementation and delivered healthy offspring. One of those is currently in treatment for a second child.

Conclusions: This preliminary report suggests that a surprising portion of young women below age 41, tagged with a diagnosis of POI/POF, due to adrenal hypoandrogenism actually suffer from a form of SOI, at least in some cases amenable to treatment by androgen supplementation. Since true POI/POF usually requires third-party egg donation, correct differentiation between POI and SOI in such women appears of great importance and may warrant a trial stimulation after androgen pre-supplementation for at least 6 weeks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Female
  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone
  • Humans
  • Infertility, Female* / diagnosis
  • Infertility, Female* / etiology
  • New York City
  • Ovulation Induction
  • Pregnancy
  • Primary Ovarian Insufficiency* / complications
  • Primary Ovarian Insufficiency* / diagnosis
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Follicle Stimulating Hormone