Study Links Testosterone In The Womb To Language Delays In Boys

New research from Australia has found that boys who are exposed to high levels of testosterone before birth are twice as likely to experience delays in language development.

AsianScientist (Jan. 31, 2012) – New research from Perth’s Telethon Institute for Child Health Research has found that boys who are exposed to high levels of testosterone before birth are twice as likely to experience delays in language development.

The study, led by Associate Professor Andrew Whitehouse, used umbilical cord blood to explore the presence of testosterone when the language-related regions of a fetus’ brain are undergoing a critical period of growth. The research has been published in the latest edition of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

“An estimated 12 percent of toddlers experience significant delays in their language development,” said Dr. Whitehouse, who also heads the Autism Research Team at the institute.

“While language development varies between individuals, boys tend to develop later and at a slower rate than girls,” he said.

The research team wanted to test whether this developmental delay could be due to prenatal exposure to sex steroids such as testosterone, as male fetuses are known to have ten times the circulating levels of testosterone compared to females. The team proposed that higher levels of exposure to prenatal testosterone might increase the likelihood of language development delays.

Dr. Whitehouse’s team measured levels of testosterone in the umbilical cord blood of 767 newborns before examining their language ability at one, two, and three years of age.

The results showed that boys with high levels of testosterone in cord blood were between two and three times more likely to experience language delay. However, the opposite effect was found in girls, where high levels of testosterone in cord blood were associated with a decreased risk of language delay.

Dr. Whitehouse said the finding is significant in that it gives a biological explanation for why boys’ language development differs to that of girls.

Previous smaller studies have explored the link between testosterone levels in amniotic fluid and language development. However, this is the first large population-based study to explore the relationship between umbilical cord blood and language delay in the first three years of life.

“Language delay is one of the most common reasons children are taken to a pediatrician,” Dr. Whitehouse said. “Potentially, this could help us to identify children at higher risk for language delay at an earlier age, increasing the opportunity for effective therapies.”

The article can be found at: Whitehouse AJO et al. (2012) Sex-specific associations between umbilical cord blood testosterone levels and language delay in early childhood.


Source: Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.
Photo: Simone D. McCourtie/World Bank.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Anusuya Das received a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, and a B.A. in Bioelectrical/Cellular-Molecular Engineering from Arizona State University, USA. Anusuya is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Virginia, USA.

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