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Stress. 2019 Mar;22(2):228-235. doi: 10.1080/10253890.2018.1553950. Epub 2019 Feb 15.

Prenatal cortisol modifies the association between maternal trauma history and child cognitive development in a sex-specific manner in an urban pregnancy cohort.

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a Department of Pediatrics , Kravis Children's Hospital, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai , New York , NY , USA.
b Department of Biostatistics , Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health , Boston , MA , USA.
c Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health , Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai , New York , NY , USA.


Women's experience of trauma may cause lifelong alterations in physiological stress regulation, which can be transmitted to offspring in utero. We investigated, in a prospective pregnancy cohort, associations among maternal lifetime interpersonal trauma (IPT) history, prenatal cortisol dysregulation, and children's memory domains. Sex-specific effects were also explored. Pregnant women were enrolled from Brigham & Women's Hospital and affiliated clinics near Boston, MA, in 2002-2007. IPT was assessed with the Revised Conflict Tactics Scale, short form. Salivary cortisol was measured at five time points on each of three days in one week at 29.0 ± 5.1 weeks gestation, and morning rise and diurnal slope were calculated. The Wide Range Assessment of Memory & Learning, 2nd Edition was administered at 6.5 ± 1.0 years and scores were generated for general memory and three sub-domains: verbal, visual, and attention/concentration. In total, 258 maternal-child dyads provided memory and IPT and/or cortisol data. IPT was positively associated with verbal memory in boys (β ± SE: 4.6 ± 2.6) and inversely associated with visual memory score in girls (-6.5 ± 3.2). IPT did not predict prenatal cortisol, but prenatal cortisol modified the association between IPT history and child memory in varying coefficient models allowing for non-linear effect modification. The strongest evidence of interaction was for visual memory in boys: IPT history was associated with poorer visual memory only in those with flatter prenatal diurnal slope (interaction p = .005). Maternal lifetime IPT that leads to prenatal HPA dysregulation may have consequences for child memory, more so than either trauma or elevated cortisol alone. Boys may be more vulnerable to effects. Sex- and timing-specific effects require further investigation.


Cognitive development; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; lifetime trauma; pregnancy; prenatal programing; sex differences

[Available on 2020-03-01]

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