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Home > Unit on Genetics of Puberty and Reproduction

Regulation of Pubertal Onset and Reproductive Development

Angela Delaney, MD
  • Angela Delaney, MD, Unit on Genetics of Puberty and Reproduction
  • Rebecca Hicks, BA, Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award Fellow
  • Zheng Zhang, MD, Special Volunteer

We are interested in identifying the initiating factors for pubertal onset in children. Our long-term goal is to define the developmental physiology of pubertal development in order to increase our understanding of human disorders of puberty and reproduction. In collaboration with the Reproductive Endocrine Unit (REU) at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), we are conducting translational research on the neuroendocrine and genetic control of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) secretion and its regulation of gonadotropin secretion and gonadal physiology. We use molecular, cellular, and biochemical techniques, as well as comprehensive clinical phenotyping of human subjects, to identify and characterize biological pathways that may contribute to the reactivation of GnRH secretion at puberty and to explore diagnostic techniques and treatment of disorders of puberty and reproduction.

The role of gonadotropin pulsations in the regulation of puberty and fertility

The rare clinical syndrome of isolated GnRH deficiency (IGD), also known as idiopathic hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (IHH), presents with delayed, incomplete, or absent sexual maturation. Non-reproductive phenotypic features of this spectrum have been identified in some individuals, including anosmia, auditory defects, and skeletal, neurological, and renal anomalies. Defining the physiology of GnRH secretion is critical to understanding the clinical heterogeneity of IGD, particularly in light of emerging gene discoveries that aim to elucidate genotype-phenotype correlations.

Our clinical protocol, which is a multicenter study in collaboration with the REU at MGH, has identified a broad range of luteinizing hormone (LH) pulsatility patterns and other features that are being investigated in the context of genetic variants, where identified, in order to increase our understanding of the ontogeny of these disorders. Our phenotyping efforts have discovered that uterine anomalies may represent a novel non-reproductive feature of IGD, which is now being investigated in our genetic study (below) to determine whether there is a common molecular cause for these phenotypes.

In addition, reversal of IGD occurs in approximately 20% of cases, and no reliable predictive factors have yet been identified. The physical hallmark of reversal of IGD in male subjects is testicular enlargement in the absence of treatment with gonadotropins or pulsatile GnRH, but there is no such physical sign of reversal in female subjects. As a result, the frequency of reversal in female subjects is largely unknown, with only several cases described, which were identified retrospectively (Sidhoum et al., J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2014;99:861). We are now longitudinally monitoring our female subjects at approximately two-year intervals after their initial visit for a prospective evaluation in order to determine the frequency of reversal in female patients. The findings of this study will have important clinical implications for female patients with IGD.

Neurocognitive effects of sex hormone deficiency at or before puberty

There is little existing evidence for the neurocognitive effects of delayed puberty. We performed neurocognitive testing and structural and functional MRI on subjects with IGD, comparing them with healthy controls matched for age, sex, and race. Accounting for gender, our preliminary analysis found that cortical surface area was negatively correlated with age in the idiopathic hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (IHH) group and positively or uncorrelated with age in controls in several brain regions. fMRI results showed that the magnitude and extent of blood oxygenation level–dependent (BOLD) activation during a face recognition task was lower bilaterally in occipital regions in the IHH subjects than in control subjects. Neurocognitive testing showed preserved verbal and overall IQ, but significant deficits in several neurocognitive domains in IHH patients, including performance IQ, verbal memory and fluency, and processing speed. Our findings suggest that, in both sexes, pubertal sex steroid deficiency contributes to persistent structural and functional brain differences as well as to neurocognitive deficits primarily involving spatial ability and recognition memory, providing further direct evidence in humans for the critical spatiotemporal role played by appropriately timed pubertal sex steroids during normal brain development.

The molecular basis of inherited reproductive disorders

Human and animal models have identified several genes responsible for IGD, but more than half the patients with clinical evidence of the disorder do not have a detectable mutation. Furthermore, there is significant clinical heterogeneity among affected individuals, including members of the same family harboring the same mutations, which is often explained by oligo-digenic inheritance patterns. Whole-exome sequencing (WES) was performed in NICHD's Molecular Genomics Lab on 25 probands and some family members to identify novel genes responsible for IGD. Data analysis is under way, and our findings are likely to yield important insights into additional pathways involved in the regulation of GnRH secretion. In addition, we are recruiting additional families with IGD and known uterine anomalies, based on our discovery of several patients with this phenotypic combination. WES analysis in these families has the potential to identify a new non-reproductive feature of IGD, as well as a novel molecular pathway involved in the regulation of GnRH secretion and uterine development.

Premature reactivation of hypothalamic GnRH secretion result in idiopathic central precocious puberty (CPP). There is evidence that familial cases account for anywhere from 20–45% of CPP, with most studies describing autosomal dominant inheritance patterns. Far less is known about the molecular basis of CPP, and it was only within the past year that convincing evidence for a causative mutation was identified, using WES, in MKRN3, the gene encoding makorin RING-finger protein 3. Candidate gene approaches have not been successful in identifying the molecular basis of the disorder, and an unbiased approach to gene discovery seems more likely to achieve the goal of identifying novel candidate genes responsible for premature GnRH secretion in CPP. We are now actively recruiting familial cases of idiopathic CPP to undergo WES analysis. We have established collaborations with Veronica Mericq and Paulina Merino, as well as with Paul Kaplowitz and Priya Vaidyanathan at the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC, to increase enrollment, and we anticipate performing WES analysis on this cohort in the coming year. Examining the genetic characteristics of subjects with pubertal disorders will reveal insights into the mechanisms underlying the reawakening of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis at puberty. This will provide opportunities for new diagnostic capabilities and therapeutic interventions for disorders of puberty and reproduction.

Blockade of kisspeptin signaling in women

The neuropeptide hormone kisspeptin potently stimulates secretion of GnRH. While single doses of kisspeptin stimulate the reproductive endocrine axis, animal models suggest that continuous administration of kisspeptin paradoxically suppresses the reproductive endocrine axis temporarily by desensitizing the kisspeptin receptor. By administering 24-hour infusions of kisspeptin to healthy women and to patients with reproductive disorders, we hope to learn more about the role of kisspeptin both in normal physiology and in pathological conditions, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common condition characterized by ovulatory dysfunction and hyperandrogenism. Among other disturbances of hormonal regulation, patients with PCOS have high amplitude, high frequency LH pulses, which may contribute to the oligo-anovulation characteristic of this disorder.

In collaboration with Stephanie Seminara, and funded through an NIH Bedside-to-Bench Award, we are currently enrolling healthy postmenopausal women to determine the safety of continuous kisspeptin administration in women and the proper dose and conditions required to achieve desensitization of the kisspeptin receptor. Subsequently, the peptide will be given to women with PCOS to determine whether abnormal kisspeptin signaling is involved in these disturbed endocrine dynamics. Greater understanding of how kisspeptin modulates GnRH secretion in this condition could lead to novel therapeutic interventions for this patient population.

Additional Funding

  • NICHD Bedside-to-Bench Award (2012-2014): Blockade of Kisspeptin Signaling in Women


  1. Delaney A1, Padmanabhan V, Rezvani G, Chen W, Forcinito P, Cheung CS, Baron J, Lui JC. Evolutionary conservation and modulation of a juvenile growth-regulating genetic program. J Mol Endocrinol 2014;52:269-277.


  • Ravikumar Balasubramanian, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Jeffrey Baron, MD, Program on Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics, NICHD, Bethesda, MD
  • Jonathan Blumenthal, MS, Child Psychiatry Branch, NIMH, Bethesda, MD
  • Yee-Ming Chan, MD, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • William F. Crowley Jr, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Jay Giedd, MD, Child Psychiatry Branch, NIMH, Bethesda, MD
  • Janet E. Hall, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Paul Kaplowitz, MD, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC
  • Francois Lalonde, PhD, Child Psychiatry Branch, NIMH, Bethesda, MD
  • Margaret F. Lippincott, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Veronica Mericq, MD, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile
  • Paulina Merino, MD, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile
  • Forbes D. Porter, MD, PhD, Program in Developmental Endocrinology and Genetics, NICHD, Bethesda, MD
  • Stephanie B. Seminara, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Natalie D. Shaw, MD, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
  • Priya Vaidyanathan, MD, Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC

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