Interaction between Prenatal Maternal Stress and Autonomic Arousal in Predicting Conduct Problems and Psychopathic Traits in Children

  • Yu Gao
  • Yonglin Huang
  • Xiaobo Li


Evidence has suggested that neurobiological deficits combine with psychosocial risk factors to impact on the development of antisocial behavior. The current study concentrated on the interplay of prenatal maternal stress and autonomic arousal in predicting antisocial behavior and psychopathic traits. Prenatal maternal stress was assessed by caregiver’s retrospective report, and resting heart rate and respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) were measured in 295 8- to 10-year-old children. Child and caregiver also reported on child’s antisocial behavior and psychopathic traits. Higher prenatal maternal stress was associated with higher caregiver-reported antisocial and psychopathy scores, even after the concurrent measure of social adversity was controlled for. As expected, low heart rate and high RSA were associated with high antisocial and psychopathic traits. More importantly, significant interaction effects were found; prenatal stress was positively associated with multiple dimensions of psychopathic traits only on the conditions of low arousal (e.g., low heart rate or high RSA). Findings provide further support for a biosocial perspective of antisocial and psychopathic traits, and illustrate the importance of integrating biological with psychosocial measures to fully understand the etiology of behavioral problems.


Antisocial behavior Psychopathy Prenatal maternal stress Heart rate Vagal tone 



We would like to thank the Psychophysiological Lab research staff, in particular Wei Zhang, for their assistance in collecting and processing data, and the families for participation.

Compliance with Ethical Standards


This study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health to the first author under Award Number SC2HD076044. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Conflict of Interest

Yu Gao, Yonglin Huang, and Xiaobo Li declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in this study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyBrooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New YorkBrooklynUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyBrooklyn College of the City University of New YorkBrooklynUSA
  3. 3.Departments of Biomedical Engineering, Electrical and Computer EngineeringNew Jersey Institute of TechnologyNewarkUSA

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