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J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2011 Aug;52(8):844-52. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2011.02410.x. Epub 2011 Apr 19.

Physiological markers of anxiety are increased in children of abused mothers.

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Emory University School of Medicine, Dept of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Atlanta, GA 30303, USA.



A growing number of studies indicate that low income, African American men and women living in urban environments are at high risk for trauma exposure, which may have intergenerational effects. The current study employed psychophysiological methods to describe biomarkers of anxiety in children of traumatized mothers.


Study participants were recruited from a highly traumatized urban population, comprising mother-child pairs (n=36) that included school-age children. Mothers were assessed for childhood abuse with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, as well as symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The children were measured for dark-enhanced startle responses and heart-rate variability.


Dark-enhanced startle was found to be higher in children whose mothers had high levels of childhood physical abuse, as compared to children whose mothers had low levels of physical abuse. During the habituation phase of the startle experiment, children whose mothers had high levels of childhood emotional abuse had higher sympathetic system activation compared to children of mothers with low emotional abuse. These effects remained significant after accounting for maternal symptoms of PTSD and depression, as well as for the child's trauma exposure.


These results demonstrate that children of mothers who have history of childhood physical and emotional abuse have higher dark-enhanced startle as well as greater sympathetic nervous system activation than children of mothers who do not report a history of childhood physical and emotional abuse, and emphasize the utility of physiological measures as pervasive biomarkers of psychopathology that can easily be measured in children.

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