Prenatal testosterone exposure is associated with delay of gratification and attention problems/overactive behavior in 3-year-old boys

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2019 Jun:104:49-54. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.02.014. Epub 2019 Feb 15.


Sex differences in self-control become apparent during preschool years. Girls are better able to delay their gratification and show less attention problems and overactive behavior than boys. In this context, organizational effects of gonadal steroids affecting the neural circuitry underlying self-control could be responsible for these early sex differences. In the present study testosterone levels measured in amniotic fluid (via ultra performance liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry) were used to examine the role of organizational sex hormones on self-control. One hundred and twenty-two 40-month-old children participated in a delay of gratification task (DoG task) and their parents reported on their attention problems and overactive behavior. Girls waited significantly longer for their preferred reward than boys, and significantly more girls than boys waited the maximum period of time, providing evidence for sex differences in delay of gratification. Boys that were rated as suffering from more attention problems and overactive behavior waited significantly shorter in the DoG task. Amniotic testosterone measures were reliable in boys only. Most importantly, boys who waited shorter in the DoG task and boys who were reported to suffer from more attention problems and overactive behavior had higher prenatal testosterone levels. These findings extend our knowledge concerning organizational effects of testosterone on the brain circuitry underlying self-control in boys, and are of relevance for understanding how sex differences in behavioral disorders are connected with a lack of self-control.

Keywords: Amniocentesis; Attention problems; Delay of gratification; Overactive behavior; Prenatal testosterone; Self-control; Sex differences.

MeSH terms

  • Amniocentesis / methods
  • Amniotic Fluid / chemistry
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Delay Discounting / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Reward
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Testosterone / analysis


  • Testosterone