The impact of maternal childhood abuse on maternal and infant HPA axis function in the postpartum period

Department of Psychology, Emory University, United States
Psychoneuroendocrinology (Impact Factor: 4.94). 06/2010; 35(5):686-693. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.10.009


BackgroundEarly life trauma, particularly child abuse, has been associated with aberrations in hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis functioning in adulthood. However, the relationship of early abuse and later adult neuroendocrine changes may be moderated by additional factors such as comorbid psychopathology and recent life stress. Parental exposure to child abuse may have transgenerational effects, with offspring of abuse victims showing similar neuroendocrine profiles as their mothers. The majority of previous studies in this area focus on adult offspring, and the degree to which the effects of parental child abuse can be detected earlier in the development of the offspring remains obscure.MethodsThe current study utilized a clinical sample of women with a history of MDD (N = 126), to examine the effects of maternal early life sexual and physical abuse (Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ)) on both maternal and infant salivary cortisol levels during a laboratory stress paradigm at 6 months postpartum.ResultsMaternal child abuse was associated with steeper declines in cortisol in the mothers and lower baseline cortisol in their infants. Comorbid maternal PTSD, current maternal depressive symptoms, and recent life stressors were significant moderators of maternal cortisol change. Maternal abuse history was associated with increases in cortisol levels in those mothers who experienced these additional stressors. Similarly, a history of early maternal abuse and comorbid PTSD was associated with greater increases in infant cortisol levels.ConclusionsMaternal childhood abuse was associated with HPA axis function in both the mother and the infant during the postpartum period.

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    • "Studies show that the amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, dopamine system, norepinephrin/epinephrine (adrenergic) system, HPA axis, hippocampus and corpus collosum, serotonin system, and endogenous opiate system are affected by trauma (Chu & Lieberman, 2010). Lower baseline cortisol levels have been found in the offspring of Holocaust survivors (Yehuda et al., 2007), and in the infants of mothers who had been abused as children (Brand et al., 2010), while higher cortisol levels were found in children currently experiencing PTSD symptoms (Carrion et al., 2002). "
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    • "A powerful finding was that the infants of the mothers with a history of childhood trauma had lower baseline cortisol levels compared with infants of mothers without a history of childhood trauma, which argues strongly for a transgenerational effect of childhood trauma. Brand et al. (2010) stated that the long-term effects of low baseline cortisol levels (as seen in the infants of mothers with a history of childhood abuse) is not yet known in regard to future behavioral and neuroendocrine functioning. Another study by Yehuda et al. (2000) compared 35 children of Holocaust survivors with 15 comparison subjects. "
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