According to Dr. Stephen R. Hammes, “There is a raging debate in the reproductive endocrinology field about what male hormones are doing in female fertility.” We know androgens — male sex hormones that include testosterone — are vital to a man’s fertility but Hammes and his colleagues at the University of Rochester in New York say androgens “might actually be doing something useful” for a woman’s fertility, too. Tests that the Hammes research team has done on mice indicate that the female’s testosterone level can affect egg development, a finding that can be highly beneficial for in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Fueling the debate is the idea that didehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplements increase the success rate of IVF. When DHEA is metabolized, testosterone is created. The findings of some clinical trials support the theory but others seem to debunk it.

The Rochester researchers didn’t use DHEA but tested androgens in their complete form instead. They discovered that androgens boost female fertility in two ways: 

  1. Androgens delay apoptosis. Apoptosis is a form of cellular self-destruction that occurs when a cell has achieved its natural life span or is too diseased or injured to remain viable. It’s the natural dying act on a cellular level. A female hormone — FSH, follicle-stimulating hormone — readies a follicle to release an egg that has reached a state of maturity that will allow fertilization. Androgens delays apoptosis of the follicles so more eggs can develop and more mature eggs can be released.
  2. Androgens stimulate FSH response. Androgens create more FSH receptors in the ovaries to invigorate follicle growth.

Hammes says, “Androgens are increasing follicle growth and ensuring follicles don’t die – exactly what you want when providing fertility treatment.” The researchers treated the mice with doses of androgens that would be equivalent to what a human adult female would be given to stimulate follicle activity. The androgen-treated female mice produced more eggs during ovulation than the control group that didn’t get the male hormones.

Drugs administered to humans during IVF promote follicular growth that promotes egg numbers and their maturity. The Hammes research team discovered administration of androgens produces the same result.

Administration of androgens may not be as effective in women experiencing diminished ovarian reserve. It’s typical that, once a woman reaches the age of 40, the number of eggs she has available for fertilization has reduced substantially since she was born. Androgen supplementation may not prove effective increasing fertility but younger women, for various reasons, also experience diminished ovarian reserve. The Hammes study may someday lead to technologies that increase the IVF success rate in these women.

Source: “Female Fertility: What’s Testosterone Got To Do With It?” University of Rochester Medical Center Newsroom. University of Rochester Medical Center. Mar 3, 2014. Web. Mar 9, 2014.