The role of steroid hormones in the sexual differentiation of the human brain

J Neuroendocrinol. 2022 Feb;34(2):e13050. doi: 10.1111/jne.13050. Epub 2021 Oct 27.

Abstract

Widespread sex differences in human brain structure and function have been reported. Research on animal models has demonstrated that sex differences in brain and behavior are induced by steroid hormones during specific, hormone sensitive, developmental periods. It was shown that typical male neural and behavioral characteristics develop under the influence of testosterone, mostly acting during perinatal development. By contrast, typical female neural and behavioral characteristics may actually develop under the influence of estradiol during a specific prepubertal period. This review provides an overview of our current knowledge on the role of steroid hormones in the sexual differentiation of the human brain. Both clinical and neuroimaging data obtained in patients with altered androgen levels/actions (i.e., congenital adrenal hyperplasia or complete androgen insensitivity syndrome [CAIS]), point to an important role of (prenatal) androgens in inducing typical male neural and psychosexual characteristics in humans. In contrast to rodents, there appears to be no obvious role for estrogens in masculinizing the human brain. Furthermore, data from CAIS also suggest a contribution of sex chromosome genes to the development of the human brain. The final part of this review is dedicated to a brief discussion of gender incongruence, also known as gender dysphoria, which has been associated with an altered or less pronounced sexual differentiation of the brain.

Keywords: androgens; gender; hypothalamus; neuroimaging; puberty.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgen-Insensitivity Syndrome* / complications
  • Androgens
  • Animals
  • Brain
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Differentiation*
  • Steroids

Substances

  • Androgens
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Steroids