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Autism and Testosterone


As a male we are at higher risk for heart disease, we are also at higher risk for stroke. It’s that pesky testosterone, sure it has its benefits, don’t get me wrong I think testosterone over all is great. Estrogen has it’s own downsides too, things like certain cancers for example. Well estrogen has some other benefits and as it turns out, the same sex hormone that helps protect females from stroke may also reduce their risk of autism.

In the first look at a potential role of the female sex hormone (estrogen) in autism researchers have found expression of  the estrogen receptor beta (which enables estrogen’s potent brain protection) is significantly decreased in autistic brains. The receptor (which is found in both sexes) also plays a role in locomotion as well as behavior, including anxiety, depression, memory, and learning.

“If you ask any psychiatrist seeing patients with autistic behavior their most striking observation from the clinic, they will say there are more males compared to females,” said Dr. Anilkumar Pillai, MCG neuroscientist and corresponding author of the study in Molecular Autism.

Estrogen is known to help protect premenopausal women from maladies such as stroke and impaired cognition. Exposure to high levels of the male hormone testosterone during early development has been linked to autism, which is five times more common in males than females.

The new findings of reduced expression of estrogen receptor beta as well as that of an enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen could help explain the high testosterone levels in autistic individuals and higher autism rates in males.

It was the 5-to-1 male-to-female ratio along with the testosterone hypothesis that led Pillai and his colleagues to pursue whether estrogen might help explain the significant gender disparity and possibly point toward a new treatment.

“The testosterone hypothesis is already there, but nobody had investigated whether it had anything to do with the female hormone in the brain,” Pillai said. “Estrogen is known to be neuroprotective, but nobody has looked at whether its function is impaired in the brain of individuals with autism. We found that the children with autism didn’t have sufficient estrogen receptor beta expression to mediate the protective benefits of estrogen.”

Comparing the brains of 13 children with and 13 children without autism spectrum disorder, the researchers found a 35 percent decrease in estrogen receptor beta expression as well as a 38 percent reduction in the amount of aromatase, the enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen.

Levels of estrogen receptor beta proteins, the active molecules that result from gene expression and enable functions like brain protection, were similarly low. There was no discernable change in expression levels of estrogen receptor alpha, which mediates sexual behavior. The study focused on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in social behavior and cognition and all the brain tissue was from male children except for one control.

While much work remains, estrogen receptor beta agonists, which are already known to improve brain plasticity and memory in animals, might one day help reverse autism’s behavioral deficits, such as reclusiveness and repetitive behavior.

The team is already moving to animal studies to see what happens when they reduce estrogen receptor beta expression in mice. They also plan to give an estrogen receptor beta agonist (which should increase receptor function) to a mouse with generalized inflammation and signs of autism to see if it mitigates those signs.

This would be a good time to clarify though, hormones play an important role in development, estrogen and testosterone are necessary in both male and females to develop properly. This isn’t about the hormones themselves as much as it is about the receptors that those hormones trigger (think of it like locks and keys, hormones are the key and the receptors are the locks).

There are probably many different genetic roads to autism, but solving these problems will at the very least offer better treatment and care for autistic children. We probably won’t be able to cure every form of autism, but understanding the causes and ways to correct them will (hopefully) help cure at least certain types of autism.

As always this has nothing to do with vaccines, not even remotely. We need to work to figure out actual causes of autism and find ways to correct those causes. The anti-vaccination movement is harmful at the very least because of this, imagine all the money that is being wasted to scare parents, all to make a quick buck from them.

It just disgusts me and I have to apologize for the rant, I want to find a cure as much (if not more) than the next person, but these people just want to make money and cause fear and that is just wrong.

Amanda Crider,, Roshni Thakkar,, Anthony O Ahmed, & Anilkumar Pillai (2014). Dysregulation of estrogen receptor beta (ERβ), aromatase (CYP19A1), and ER co-activators in the middle frontal gyrus of autism spectrum disorder subjects Molecular Autism : 10.1186/2040-2392-5-46

2 responses

  1. Seth Bittker

    Given studies like the above and that autism tends to feature an “extreme male brain” in Simon Baron-Cohen words.it would seem that we would be ill-advised to give such children large oral doses of a pro-hormone that upregulates testosterone production.

    Yet we do this everyday. Oral vitamin D upregulates production of testosterone and we give large doses of it to infants and toddlers through supplementation and fortification: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21154195.


    September 24, 2014 at 9:14 am

    • Well vitamin D is needed for proper development so it’s a, sort of, which does less harm kind of question. I try to keep an open mind about all this.

      But really I think the “alarming” rise in ASD is because we changed the requirements so more people would fit in the category as well as better testing and detection methods.

      Also the study you linked to had males who were already deficient in vitamin D. If you look at how testosterone is made in the body it would make sense that if you are deficient in vitamin D increasing it would also bring testosterone production back to normal levels.

      In any case thanks for taking the time to comment, I always appreciate it when people share their thoughts on any of the topics I post about. 🙂


      September 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

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