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Endocr Rev. 2014 Dec;35(6):961-91. doi: 10.1210/er.2013-1122. Epub 2014 Sep 11.

Implications of prenatal steroid perturbations for neurodevelopment, behavior, and autism.

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Division of Pharmacology and Toxicology (A.C.G.), University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas 78712; Massachusetts General Hospital for Children (K.M.M.), Lexington, Massachusetts, 02421; and Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior (K.G., D.P.), Rockefeller University, New York, New York 10021.


The prenatal brain develops under the influence of an ever-changing hormonal milieu that includes endogenous fetal gonadal and adrenal hormones, placental and maternal hormones, and exogenous substances with hormonal activity that can cross the placental barrier. This review discusses the influences of endogenous fetal and maternal hormones on normal brain development and potential consequences of pathophysiological hormonal perturbations to the developing brain, with particular reference to autism. We also consider the effects of hormonal pharmaceuticals used for assisted reproduction, the maintenance of pregnancy, the prevention of congenital adrenal hypertrophy, and hormonal contraceptives continued into an unanticipated pregnancy, among others. These treatments, although in some instances life-saving, may have unintended consequences on the developing fetuses. Additional concern is raised by fetal exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals encountered universally by pregnant women from food/water containers, contaminated food, household chemicals, and other sources. What are the potential outcomes of prenatal steroid perturbations on neurodevelopmental and behavioral disorders, including autism-spectrum disorders? Our purposes here are 1) to summarize some consequences of steroid exposures during pregnancy for the development of brain and behavior in the offspring; 2) to summarize what is known about the relationships between exposures and behavior, including autism spectrum disorders; 3) to discuss the molecular underpinnings of such effects, especially molecular epigenetic mechanisms of prenatal steroid manipulations, a field that may explain effects of direct exposures, and even transgenerational effects; and 4) for all of these, to add cautionary notes about their interpretation in the name of scientific rigor.

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