[Show abstract][Hide abstract] ABSTRACT:
Major questions remain about the exact role of hormones in cognition. Furthermore, the extent to which early perturbation in steroid function affects human brain development continues to be a wide open area of research. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a genetic disorder of steroid dysfunction characterized in part by in utero over-production of testosterone, was used as a natural model for addressing this question. Here, CAH (n=54, mean age=17.53, 31 female) patients were compared to healthy age- and sex-matched individuals (n=55, mean age=19.02, 22 female) on a virtual equivalent of the Morris Water Maze task [Morris, R., 1984. Developments of a water-maze procedure for studying spatial learning in the rat. J. Neurosci. Methods 11, 47-60], an established measure of sex differences in spatial cognition in rodents. Findings revealed that females with CAH with the most severe form of the disease and expected highest level of in utero exposure to androgens were found to perform similarly to both healthy males and CAH males, whereas strong sex differences were apparent in milder forms of the disorder and in controls. Moreover, advanced bone age, an indicator of long-term childhood exposure to testosterone was correlated with improved performance. The results indicate that individuals exposed to both excess androgens prenatally and prolonged exposure during childhood may manifest long-lasting changes in cognitive function. Such finding suggests a pivotal role of hormonal function on brain development in humans, mirroring results from the animal literature.