Puberty not only a matter of hormones

Scheme of the somatosensory humunculus of the

When rats are touched at their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. Bernstein researchers at the Bernstein Center Berlin report that the representation of the genitals in the cortex doubles in size

Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the puberty of adolescent rats, in particular the reorganization of their brain? It has been known that social cues can either accelerate or delay mammal puberty. Yet, it is not clear which signals are crucial, nor how they affect body and brain. A new study by researchers of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin and Humboldt University Berlin shows that sexual touch might have a bigger influence on puberty than previously thought.

Constanze Lenschow, Johanna Sigl-Glöckner and Michael Brecht observed that the cortical representation of the genitals expands during puberty. To begin with, the study confirms the expected: sexual hormones accelerate puberty and the growth of the so-called genital cortex. A novel finding of scientists is that sexual touch does indeed accelerate puberty. Lenschow says: “the effects of sexual touch on puberty and the genital cortex are remarkable since you wouldn’t expect this area of the brain to expand at this stage of development.” Hence, the expansion of the genital cortex is not only triggered by hormones but also by sexual touch.

The researchers’ recent publication in PLOS Biology describes these results. First, they put young female rat together with male rats and measured the expansion of the genital cortex. The same acceleration of cortical expansion could be observed when the rats were touched at their genitals by experimenters. The final results are published in the open-access Journal PLOS Biology. „The representation of the body changes in the cerebral cortex,” says Brecht, “and in particular the genital cortex doubles in size. Our results help to understand why the perception of our body changes so much during puberty.” Thus, changes of the body and the concurrent changes in the brain in puberty are not merely a matter of hormones – they are also co-determined by sexual experience.


Opens external link in new windowDevelopment of rat female genital cortex and control of female puberty by sexual touch. Lenschow C, Sigl-Glöckner J, Brecht M, PLOS Biology (2017)



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