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Background: Sex-differential biology may contribute to the consistently male-biased prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Gene expression differences between males and females in the brain can indicate possible molecular and cellular mechanisms involved, although transcriptomic sex differences during human prenatal cortical development have been incompletely characterized, primarily due to small sample sizes. Methods: We performed a meta-analysis of sex-differential expression and co-expression network analysis in 2 independent bulk RNA sequencing datasets generated from cortex of 273 prenatal donors without known neuropsychiatric disorders. To assess the intersection between neurotypical sex differences and neuropsychiatric disorder biology, we tested for enrichment of ASD–associated risk genes and expression changes, neuropsychiatric disorder risk genes, and cell type markers within identified sex-differentially expressed genes (sex-DEGs) and sex-differential co-expression modules. Results: We identified 101 significant sex-DEGs, including Y-chromosome genes, genes impacted by X-chromosome inactivation, and autosomal genes. Known ASD risk genes, implicated by either common or rare variants, did not preferentially overlap with sex-DEGs. We identified 1 male-specific co-expression module enriched for immune signaling that is unique to 1 input dataset. Conclusions: Sex-differential gene expression is limited in prenatal human cortex tissue, although meta-analysis of large datasets allows for the identification of sex-DEGs, including autosomal genes that encode proteins involved in neural development. Lack of sex-DEG overlap with ASD risk genes in the prenatal cortex suggests that sex-differential modulation of ASD symptoms may occur in other brain regions, at other developmental stages, or in specific cell types, or may involve mechanisms that act downstream from mutation-carrying genes.

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Journal article


Biological Psychiatry Global Open Science

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