The Human Body

Prenatal Sexual Development

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About six weeks after conception, if a Y chromosome is present in the embryo's cells (as it is in normal males), a gene on the chromosome directs the undifferentiated gonads to become testes. If the Y chromosome is not present (as in normal females), the undifferentiated gonads will become ovaries.

If the gonads become testes, they begin to produce androgens (male hormones, primarily testosterone) by about eight weeks after conception. These androgens stimulate development of the one set of the genital ducts into the epididymes, vas deferens, and ejaculatory duct. The presence of androgens also stimulates development of the penis and the scrotum. The testes later descend into the scrotum. Males also produce a substance that inhibits the development of the second set of ducts into female organs. In the absence of such hormonal stimulation, female structures develop.

Prenatal hormones also play a role in the sexual differentiation of the brain. For example, prenatal hormones direct the development of sex differences in some cells and the neural pathways in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls the endocrine system). Beginning at puberty, based on prenatal sexual differentiation, the hypothalamus directs either the cyclic secretion of sex hormones that controls the female menstrual cycle or the relatively continuous production of male sex hormones. Other brain differences may be related to differences in sexual and aggressive behavior or in cognitive and perceptual characteristics. Most of the research on sexual differentiation of the brain has been performed with animals or with biased human samples, and there is much debate about the nature and behavioral relevance of these differences in humans.