Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Testosterone and Pubertal Development

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Animal models have demonstrated fetal alcohol-related disruptions in neuroendocrine function in the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal axis and downstream effects on pubertal development and sexual behavior in males and females, but little is known about these effects in humans. This study examined whether prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with alterations in testosterone during adolescence and whether it affects timing of pubertal development.


The sample consisted of 265 African American adolescents from the Detroit Longitudinal Cohort Study for whom testosterone and/or pubertal development data were available. Subjects were offspring of women recruited at their first prenatal clinic visit to over represent moderate-to-heavy alcohol use, including a 5% random sample of low-level drinkers/abstainers. Mothers were interviewed at every prenatal visit about their alcohol consumption using a timeline follow-back approach and about their smoking and drug use and sociodemographic factors. At age 14 years, adolescents provided salivary samples, which were analyzed for testosterone (pg/ml), self-reported Tanner stages for pubertal development, and age at menarche (females).


Prenatal alcohol exposure was related to elevated testosterone concentrations for males and females but not to changes in Tanner stages or age at menarche, after controlling for confounders. In regression models stratified by alcohol exposure, the expected relation between testosterone and pubic hair development was seen among males with light-to-no prenatal alcohol exposure, but not among those with moderate-to-heavy prenatal alcohol exposure. This interaction between testosterone and prenatal alcohol exposure was confirmed in multivariable models including an alcohol exposure group × testosterone interaction term and potential confounders.


This study is the first to show a relation between prenatal alcohol exposure and increased testosterone during adolescence and evidence of decreased testosterone responsiveness in tissues related to pubertal development in humans. Further studies examining androgen receptor expression and other hormonal and cellular factors affecting pubertal development may reveal important mechanisms underlying these teratogenic effects of alcohol exposure.

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