Objective: Excessive response to unexpected or “deviant” stimuli during infancy and early childhood represents an early risk marker for anxiety disorders. However, research has yet to delineate the specific brain regions underlying the neonatal response to deviant stimuli near birth and the relation to risk for anxiety disorders. The authors used task-based functional MRI (fMRI) to delineate the neonatal response to deviant stimuli and its relationship to maternal trait anxiety. Methods: The authors used fMRI to measure brain activity evoked by deviant auditory stimuli in 45 sleeping neonates (mean age, 27.8 days; 60% female; 64% African American). In 41 of the infants, neural response to deviant stimuli was examined in relation to maternal trait anxiety on the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, a familial risk factor for offspring anxiety. Results: Neonates manifested a robust and widespread neural response to deviant stimuli that resembles patterns found previously in adults. Higher maternal trait anxiety was related to higher responses within multiple brain regions, including the left and right anterior insula, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and multiple areas within the anterior cingulate cortex. These areas overlap with brain regions previously linked to anxiety disorders and other psychiatric illnesses in adults. Conclusions: The neural architecture sensitive to deviant stimuli robustly functions in newborns. Excessive responsiveness of some circuitry components at birth may signal risk for anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)771-778
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021


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