Menarche, pubertal timing and the brain: female-specific patterns of brain maturation beyond age-related development


Abstract Background Puberty depicts a period of profound and multifactorial changes ranging from social to biological factors. While brain development in youths has been studied mostly from an age perspective, recent evidence suggests that pubertal measures may be more sensitive to study adolescent neurodevelopment, however, studies on pubertal timing in relation to brain development are still scarce. Methods We investigated if pre- vs. post-menarche status can be classified using machine learning on cortical and subcortical structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data from strictly age-matched adolescent females from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) cohort. For comparison of the identified menarche-related patterns to age-related patterns of neurodevelopment, we trained a brain age prediction model on data from the Philadelphia Neurodevelopmental Cohort and applied it to the same ABCD data, yielding differences between predicted and chronological age referred to as brain age gaps. We tested the sensitivity of both these frameworks to measures of pubertal maturation, specifically age at menarche and puberty status. Results The machine learning model achieved moderate but statistically significant accuracy in the menarche classification task, yielding for each subject a class probability ranging from 0 (pre-) to 1 (post- menarche). Comparison to brain age predictions revealed shared and distinct patterns of neurodevelopment captured by both approaches. Continuous menarche class probabilities were positively associated with brain age gaps, but only the menarche class probabilities—not the brain age gaps—were associated with age at menarche. Conclusions This study demonstrates the use of a machine learning model to classify menarche status from structural MRI data while accounting for age-related neurodevelopment. Given its sensitivity towards measures of puberty timing, our work suggests that menarche class probabilities may be developed toward an objective brain-based marker of pubertal development.

Biol Sex Differ