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No Evidence for Enhancement of Spatial Ability with Elevated Prenatal Androgen Exposure in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: A Meta-Analysis

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Abstract

Spatial abilities contribute to life and occupational competencies, and certain spatial skills differ, on average, between males and females, typically favoring males when differences occur. Factors contributing to spatial skills could include prenatal as well as experiential/cultural influences, with biological and social influences likely interacting and difficult to disentangle. This meta-analysis examined the potential influence of prenatal androgen exposure on spatial skill by examining studies of patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH). CAH involves elevated adrenal androgens prenatally, with overall androgen concentrations higher for females with CAH versus same-sex controls but with little overall difference between males with CAH versus controls. We hypothesized that, if androgens contribute prenatally to neurobehavioral development in humans as in many other species, females with CAH would show spatial enhancement versus control females, but with no definitive hypothesis for males. Meta-analysis of 12 studies examining overall spatial skill and three spatial subcategories failed to support enhanced spatial performance for females with CAH; males with CAH showed lower spatial ability compared to control males, at least for the category of overall spatial skill. Although statistical logic precludes accepting the null hypothesis for females, the meta-analysis failed to support the idea that prenatal exposure to androgens explains spatial gender/sex differences in humans. Alternative explanations for average gender/sex differences in some spatial tasks could include androgen exposure at other times, such as mini-puberty, or different social factors experienced by males and females. We also discuss possible explanations for the different outcomes seen in females versus males with CAH.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Debate exists concerning whether to use the term “sex” or “gender,” with some arguing that “sex” should be reserved for biological distinctions and “gender” for social or cultural ones. Others contend that the distinction is irrelevant due to the intertwining of these factors. For a variety of reasons, including our inability to know the origins of most characteristics, we will typically use the terms “gender/sex” or “gender/sex difference” (see Hyde, Bigler, Joel, Tate, & van Anders, 2019).

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Acknowledgments

Marcia Collaer received support from the Middlebury College Research Leave Program; the A. Barton Hepburn Endowed Professorship; and an Overseas Fellowship from Churchill College, University of Cambridge. Melissa Hines received research support from the United States Public Health Service (HD081720). We thank Elise Park, Middlebury College, for her work extracting data and computing summary statistics for the meta-analysis.

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Correspondence to Marcia L. Collaer.

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Collaer, M.L., Hines, M. No Evidence for Enhancement of Spatial Ability with Elevated Prenatal Androgen Exposure in Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia: A Meta-Analysis. Arch Sex Behav 49, 395–411 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-020-01645-7

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Keywords

  • Spatial ability
  • Visuospatial ability
  • Androgen
  • Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH)
  • Gender differences
  • Sex differences