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Open Access Short report

Prenatal versus postnatal sex steroid hormone effects on autistic traits in children at 18 to 24 months of age

Bonnie Auyeung1*, Jag Ahluwalia2, Lynn Thomson2, Kevin Taylor3, Gerald Hackett4, Kieran J O’Donnell5 and Simon Baron-Cohen1

Author Affiliations

1 Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Douglas House, 18B Trumpington Rd, Cambridge CB2 8AH, UK

2 Neonatal Service, Rosie Maternity Hospital, Robinson Way, Cambridge, CB2 0QQ, UK

3 Department of Clinical Biochemistry, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, CB2 0QQ, UK

4 Department of Fetal Medicine, Rosie Maternity Hospital, Robinson Way, Cambridge, CB2 0QQ, UK

5 Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada

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Molecular Autism 2012, 3:17  doi:10.1186/2040-2392-3-17

Published: 11 December 2012

Abstract

Background

Studies of prenatal exposure to sex steroid hormones predict autistic traits in children at 18 to 24 and at 96 months of age. However, it is not known whether postnatal exposure to these hormones has a similar effect. This study compares prenatal and postnatal sex steroid hormone levels in relation to autistic traits in 18 to 24-month-old children.

Fetal testosterone (fT) and fetal estradiol (fE) levels were measured in amniotic fluid from pregnant women (n = 35) following routine second-trimester amniocentesis. Saliva samples were collected from these children when they reached three to four months of age and were analyzed for postnatal testosterone (pT) levels. Mothers were asked to complete the Quantitative Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (Q-CHAT), a measure of autistic traits in children 18 to 24 months old.

Finding

fT (but not pT) levels were positively associated with scores on the Q-CHAT. fE and pT levels showed no sex differences and no relationships with fT levels. fT levels were the only variable that predicted Q-CHAT scores.

Conclusions

These preliminary findings are consistent with the hypothesis that prenatal (but not postnatal) androgen exposure, coinciding with the critical period for sexual differentiation of the brain, is associated with the development of autistic traits in 18 to 24 month old toddlers. However, it is recognized that further work with a larger sample population is needed before the effects of postnatal androgen exposure on autistic traits can be ruled out. These results are also in line with the fetal androgen theory of autism, which suggests that prenatal, organizational effects of androgen hormones influence the development of autistic traits in later life.