Article

Early Androgen Effects on Spatial and Mechanical Abilities: Evidence From Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia

Department of Psychology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA.
Behavioral Neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.73). 02/2012; 126(1):86-96. DOI: 10.1037/a0026652
Source: PubMed

ABSTRACT

There is considerable controversy about the origins of sex differences in cognitive abilities, particularly the male superiority in spatial abilities. We studied effects of early androgens on spatial and mechanical abilities in adolescents and young adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). On tests of three-dimensional mental rotations, geography, and mechanical knowledge, females with CAH scored higher than their unaffected sisters, and males with CAH scored lower than their unaffected brothers. Exploratory regression analyses suggest that androgens affect spatial ability in females directly and through male-typed activity interests. Findings indicate that early androgens influence spatial and mechanical abilities, and that androgen effects on abilities may occur in part through effects on sex-typed activity interests.

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Available from: Adriene M Beltz
    • "Inconsistencies in results could reflect the use of small samples, differences in the matching of controls or in the specific measures of spatial ability, or genuine differences in the cognitive profiles of the various samples. Similarly for males with CAH, some studies show no differences in visuospatial abilities compared to controls (Baker & Ehrhardt, 1974; McGuire et al., 1975; Resnick et al., 1986) while others show reduced spatial, or specifically mental rotation, abilities (Berenbaum et al., 2012; Hampson et al., 1998; Hines et al., 2003). We have not found any studies showing elevated visuospatial skills in males with CAH. "
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    ABSTRACT: Girls and women with classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) experience elevated androgens prenatally and show increased male-typical development for certain behaviors. Further, individuals with CAH receive glucocorticoid (GC) treatment postnatally, and this GC treatment could have negative cognitive consequences. We investigated two alternative hypotheses, that: (a) early androgen exposure in females with CAH masculinizes (improves) spatial perception and quantitative abilities at which males typically outperform females, or (b) CAH is associated with performance decrements in these domains, perhaps due to reduced short-term-memory (STM). Adolescent and adult individuals with CAH (40 female and 29 male) were compared with relative controls (29 female and 30 male) on spatial perception and quantitative abilities as well as on Digit Span (DS) to assess STM and on Vocabulary to assess general intelligence. Females with CAH did not perform better (more male-typical) on spatial perception or quantitative abilities than control females, failing to support the hypothesis of cognitive masculinization. Rather, in the sample as a whole individuals with CAH scored lower on spatial perception (p≤.009), a quantitative composite (p≤.036), and DS (p≤.001), despite no differences in general intelligence. Separate analyses of adolescent and adult participants suggested the spatial and quantitative effects might be present only in adult patients with CAH; however, reduced DS performance was found in patients with CAH regardless of age group. Separate regression analyses showed that DS predicted both spatial perception and quantitative performance (both p≤.001), when age, sex, and diagnosis status were controlled. Thus, reduced STM in CAH patients versus controls may have more general cognitive consequences, potentially reducing spatial perception and quantitative skills. Although hyponatremia or other aspects of salt-wasting crises or additional hormone abnormalities cannot be ruled out as potential contributors, elevated GCs appear to be the most likely contributor to reductions in STM. Additional efforts to monitor GC administration protocols may help achieve optimal cognitive outcomes. Educational intervention for individuals with CAH might also be useful.
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    • "Studies of other clinical populations also suggest that postnatal sex-typed behavior is influenced by the prenatal hormone environment (reviewed in Berenbaum and Beltz, 2011), but results from these populations are less clear. For example, boys with CAH exhibit less than typical rough play (Hines and Kaufman, 1994) and poorer performance on mental rotation tasks than unaffected boys (Berenbaum et al., 2012), while their toy preferences and play partner preferences are unchanged (Hines and Kaufman, 1994). This has led researchers to infer that, in contrast to girls, boys with CAH are exposed to slightly lower than average levels of gestational androgens , perhaps because increased adrenal androgen production somehow " clamps " the production of gonadal androgen in the fetus (Wallen, 2005). "
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    • "One recent study showed that among men, there was a small-to-moderate effect of pubertal timing on three-dimensional mental rotations test scores, with early maturers performing better than late maturers; no significant link between pubertal timing and verbal fluency scores was found (Beltz and Berenbaum, 2013). Possible reasons for these include that men who experienced early puberty may have greater amount circulating testosterone levels than men with late puberty and thus, circulating hormones could be driving the effect of pubertal timing on spatial ability and that pubertal timing is a reflection of testosterone exposure during early development with early androgen exposure facilitating spatial abilities (Berenbaum et al., 2012; Puts et al., 2008). However, there were no significant relationships between timing and either cognitive measure among women (Beltz and Berenbaum, 2013), suggesting the pubertal timing effects on male-typed cognition were not observed in women. "
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