Effect of Prenatal Exposure to Tobacco Smoke on Inhibitory Control: Neuroimaging Results From a 25-Year Prospective Study

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There is accumulating evidence relating maternal smoking during pregnancy to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) without elucidating specific mechanisms. Research investigating the neurobiological underpinnings of this disorder has implicated deficits during response inhibition. Attempts to uncover the effect of prenatal exposure to nicotine on inhibitory control may thus be of high clinical importance.


To clarify the influence of maternal smoking during pregnancy (hereafter referred to as prenatal smoking) on the neural circuitry of response inhibition and its association with related behavioral phenotypes such as ADHD and novelty seeking in the mother’s offspring.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging was performed for the offspring at 25 years of age during a modified Eriksen flanker/NoGo task, and voxel-based morphometry was performed to study brain volume differences of the offspring. Prenatal smoking (1-5 cigarettes per day [14 mothers] or >5 cigarettes per day [24 mothers]) and lifetime ADHD symptoms were determined using standardized parent interviews at the offspring’s age of 3 months and over a period of 13 years (from 2 to 15 years of age), respectively. Novelty seeking was assessed at 19 years of age. Analyses were adjusted for sex, parental postnatal smoking, psychosocial and obstetric adversity, maternal prenatal stress, and lifetime substance abuse. A total of 178 young adults (73 males) without current psychopathology from a community sample followed since birth (Mannheim, Germany) participated in the study.


Functional magnetic resonance imaging response, morphometric data, lifetime ADHD symptoms, and novelty seeking.


Participants prenatally exposed to nicotine exhibited a weaker response in the anterior cingulate cortex (t168 = 4.46; peak Montreal Neurological Institute [MNI] coordinates x = −2, y = 20, z = 30; familywise error [FWE]–corrected P = .003), the right inferior frontal gyrus (t168 = 3.65; peak MNI coordinates x = 44, y = 38, z = 12; FWE-corrected P = .04), the left inferior frontal gyrus (t168 = 4.09; peak MNI coordinates x = −38, y = 36, z = 8; FWE-corrected P = .009), and the supramarginal gyrus (t168 = 5.03; peak MNI coordinates x = 64, y = −28, z = 22; FWE-corrected P = .02) during the processing of the NoGo compared to neutral stimuli, while presenting a decreased volume in the right inferior frontal gyrus. These findings were obtained irrespective of the adjustment of confounders, ADHD symptoms, and novelty seeking. There was an inverse relationship between inferior frontal gyrus activity and ADHD symptoms and between anterior cingulate cortex activity and novelty seeking.


These findings point to a functional involvement of prenatal exposure to tobacco smoke in neural alterations similar to ADHD, which underlines the importance of smoking prevention treatments.

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