Antenatal maternal anxiety modulates the BOLD response in 20-year-old men during endogenous cognitive control

  • Maarten Mennes
  • Peter Stiers
  • Lieven Lagae
  • Bea R. H. Van den BerghEmail author


Evidence is building for an association between the level of anxiety experienced by a mother during pregnancy and offspring cognition and structural and functional brain correlates. The current study uses fMRI to examine the association between prenatal exposure to maternal anxiety and brain activity associated with endogenous versus exogenous cognitive control in 20-year-old males. Endogenous cognitive control refers to the ability to generate control over decisions, strategies, conflicting information and so on, from within oneself without external signals, while exogenous control is triggered by external signals. In line with previous results of this long-term follow-up study we found that 20-year-olds of mothers reporting high levels of anxiety during weeks 12–22 of pregnancy exhibited a different pattern of decision making in a Gambling paradigm requiring endogenous cognitive control, compared to adults of mothers reporting low to average levels of anxiety. Moreover, the blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) response in a number of prefrontal cortical areas was modulated by the level of antenatal maternal anxiety. In particular, a number of right lateralized clusters including inferior frontal junction, that were modulated in the adults of mothers reporting low to average levels of anxiety during pregnancy by a task manipulation of cognitive control, were not modulated by this manipulation in the adults of mothers reporting high levels of anxiety during pregnancy. These differences in brain functional correlates provide a neurobiological underpinning for the hypothesis of an association between exposure to maternal anxiety in the prenatal life period and a deficit in endogenous cognitive control in early adulthood.


Neurocognitive tasks Brain network Task-related fMRI Gambling paradigm Early adversity Developmental origins of health and disease (DOHaD) Developmental origins of behavior, health and Disseas (DOBHaD) Prospective study Maternal psychological distress Pregnancy Adult offspring 


Funding sources

This work was supported by the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) (#G.0211.03), by KU Leuven (IMPH/06/GHW and IDO 05/010 EEG-fMRI). BVdB is supported by the European Commission Seventh Framework Programme (FP7— HEALTH. 2011.2.2.2–2 BRAINAGE, grant agreement no: 279281). LL is holder of the `UCB Chair on Cognitive Dysfunctions in Childhood’ at the KU Leuven. The funding sources had no involvement in study design; in the collection, analysis and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the article for publication.

Compliance with ethical standards

Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research involving human participants

The local ethical committee for experiments on human subjects approved the study. The work described has been carried out in accordance with The Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association (Declaration of Helsinki) for experiments involving humans.

Informed consent

All participants were clearly informed about the scanning procedures and gave their written informed consent.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and BehaviorRadboud UniversityNijmegenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Neuropsychology and PsychopharmacologyMaastricht UniversityMaastrichtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Section Paediatric Neurology, Department Development and RegenerationUniversity Hospitals KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  4. 4.Health Psychology, Faculty of Psychology and Educational SciencesUniversity of Leuven - KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  5. 5.Department of Welfare, Public Health and FamilyFlemish GovernmentBrusselsBelgium

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