Puberty triggers a period of structural “re-organization” in the brain, when rising hormone levels act via receptors to influence morphology. However, our understanding of these neuroendocrine processes in humans remains poor.
As such, the current longitudinal study characterized development of the human subcortex during puberty, including changes in relation to pubertal (Tanner) stage and hormone (testosterone, dehydroepiandrosterone [DHEA]) levels. Beyond normative group-level patterns of development, we also examined whether individual differences in the rate of pubertal maturation (i.e., “pubertal/hormonal tempo”) were associated with variations in subcortical trajectories. Participants (N = 192; scans = 366) completed up to three waves of MRI assessments between 8.5 and 14.5 years of age. Parents completed questionnaire assessments of pubertal stage at each wave, and adolescents provided hormone samples on a subset of waves. Generalized additive mixture models were used to characterize trajectories of subcortical development. Results showed that development of most subcortical structures was related to pubertal stage, although findings were mostly non-significant when controlling for age. Testosterone and DHEA levels were related to development of the amygdala, hippocampus and pallidum in both sexes, and findings in the amygdala remained significant when controlling for age. Additionally, we found that variability in hormonal (specifically testosterone) tempo was related to right hippocampal development in males, with an accelerated pattern of hippocampal development in those with greater increases in testosterone levels.
Overall, our findings suggest prominent hormonal influences on the amygdala and hippocampus, consistent with the prevalence of androgen and estrogen receptors in these regions. We speculate that these findings are most likely reflective of the important role of adrenarcheal processes on adolescent brain development.