New research from Penn State’s Behavioral Endocrinology and Evolution Lab provides evidence that pubertal timing is associated with psychosexuality in men and women. The findings have been published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“We are interested in how sex hormones influence the development of the brain and behavior,” said study authors Talia Shirazi and David Puts, a PhD candidate and associate professor, respectively.
“There is growing evidence that sex hormones have permanent effects on the brain and on psychological traits during least two windows in development — the first is during gestation and right after birth, and the second is during puberty. Studies in laboratory animals show that testosterone exposure earlier in the pubertal window has a larger effect on male sexual behaviors than hormone exposure later on, but little is known about whether this is also the case in humans.”
For their study, the researchers examined 72 men and 32 women with isolated GnRH deficiency (IGD), a rare disorder in which individuals have absent or nonfunctional gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons in the hypothalamus. GnRH is a neurohormone that controls sexual maturation, the appearance of puberty, and fertility in adults.
“Because individuals with IGD are unable to produce endogenous gonadal hormones, they require hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to initiate puberty and must remain on HRT across adulthood. By utilizing data on the timing of initiation of HRT, we are thus able to pinpoint the precise age at which pubertal hormone exposure began for this clinical group.”
The study also included 231 healthy men and 648 healthy women, who provided estimates of when they first started experiencing pubertal changes.
The participants completed a measure of sociosexuality, which assessed attitudes, behaviors, and desires regarding casual sex, along with a general measure of sexual desire. Many participants also provided saliva samples, which were used to statistically control for variations in hormone concentrations.
The researchers found that earlier onset of puberty was associated with heightened psychosexuality.
“Earlier puberty was associated with greater sexual interest in both sexes, but it was more strongly associated with interest in uncommitted sex in men and with general sexual desire in women. This pattern may reflect decreasing sensitivity of the brain to sex hormones across the pubertal time window,” Shirazi and Puts told PsyPost.
“Beyond having implications for our basic understanding of behavioral neuroendocrinology, our results have clinical implications. There are several cases in which doctors will medically block or induce puberty. In these cases, the top concern is usually the physical health of the adolescent. What our research suggests is that altering pubertal timing also has long-term psychological effects,” the researchers explained.
“The extent to which these psychological effects should be considered when creating treatment plans is up to clinicians, patients, and their families, but it is our hope that our research provides information for people to make better-informed decisions.”
But, as with all research, the new findings come with some caveats.
“Correlation doesn’t mean causation, so we cannot be certain that earlier pubertal timing causes higher psychosexuality in adulthood. To better understand relationships between pubertal timing and adult phenotypes, we need longitudinal studies that recruit children before puberty and follow them throughout puberty and into adulthood,” Shirazi and Puts explained.
“If studies continue finding links between pubertal timing and adult phenotypes, an important next step will be to figure out the neurobiology underpinning these relationships. How do the neural regions and circuits responsive to hormones at puberty differ between individuals based on the timing of puberty, and can those neural differences predict differences in psychological traits? There’s a lot of exciting work to be done.”
The study, “Pubertal timing predicts adult psychosexuality: Evidence from typically developing adults and adults with isolated GnRH deficiency“, was authored by Talia N. Shirazi, Heather Self, Khytam Dawood, Rodrigo Cárdenas, Lisa L.M. Welling, Kevin A. Rosenfield, Triana L. Ortiz, Justin M. Carré, Ravikumar Balasubramanian, Angela Delaney, William Crowley, S. Marc Breedlove, and David A. Puts.