Intergenerational impact of childhood trauma on hair cortisol concentrations in mothers and their young infants

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BACKGROUND: Alterations in stress regulation and function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis during infancy may be a risk factor for the development of psychopathology later in life. Maternal childhood trauma, depression, anxiety and stressful life events are individually associated with HPA axis dysregulation. Less is known about their interdependent influence on maternal and infant stress regulation in at risk populations. In a sample of mothers with a history of depressive-, and/or anxiety disorders and their infants we explored if a history of maternal childhood trauma, current depressive and anxiety symptomatology, and recent life events were associated with maternal and infant long-term cortisol levels three months postpartum.

METHODS: Data were available of 89 mothers and 49 infants. All mothers fulfilled criteria for a lifetime depressive or anxiety disorder. Diagnosis was established with a diagnostic interview. Current depressive symptomatology was assessed with the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS), current anxiety with the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI), maternal childhood trauma with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) and recent life events with the Everyday Problem Checklist (EPC). Maternal and infant hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) were quantified with liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) three months after birth. Total scores of the CTQ and subscales, EPDS, STAI, and EPC were regressed on maternal and infant HCC using regression analyses. Differences in HCC regarding trauma history were tested with t-tests. Potential confounders were identified and adjusted for.

RESULTS: In regression analyses, a positive curvilinear relationship was found between CTQ total score and maternal HCC (n = 83, B = 0.076, SE 0.033, p = .021), but not for current depression (n = 88, B = -0.001, SE 0.011, p = .931), current anxiety (n = 88, B = 0.002, SE 0.004, p = .650) or recent life events (n = 89, B = 0.018, SE 0.032, p = .568). Analyses were adjusted for confounders. A negative linear relationship was found between maternal CTQ score and infant HCC (n = 49, β = -0.264, B = -0.006, SE 0.003, p = .052), but not for current maternal depression (n = 45, β = -0.182, B = -0.011, SE 0.008, p = .164), current maternal anxiety (n = 45, β = -0.209, B = -0.005, SE 0.003, p = .113) or recent life events (n = 46, β = -0.128, B = -0.022, SE 0.023, p = .325). Analyses were adjusted for relevant infant hair characteristics. Specifically, maternal emotional and physical neglect were related to HCC in both mothers and infants.

CONCLUSIONS: Results suggest that maternal childhood trauma is more prominent in altering maternal and infant long-term cortisol levels than perinatal depressive and anxiety symptomatology or recent life stressors in mothers with a history of depressive and/or anxiety disorders, and their infants. As infants of mothers with psychopathology are at increased risk for later psychiatric disease, future studies should investigate the interplay of possible risk factors for transgenerational transmission, intra-uterine programming of the HPA axis, including (epi-)genetic phenomena, of the HPA axis, and the influence of parenting impairment.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100167
JournalComprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology
Publication statusPublished - May 2023

Bibliographical note

ZonMW, Grant ID: 836021011.

© 2023 The Author(s).


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