Elevated infant cortisol is necessary but not sufficient for transmission of environmental risk to infant social development: Cross-species evidence of mother-infant physiological social transmission

Rosemarie E. Perry, Stephen H. Braren, Maya Opendak, Annie Brandes-Aitken, Divija Chopra, Joyce Woo, Regina Sullivan, Clancy Blair

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Environmental adversity increases child susceptibility to disrupted developmental outcomes, but the mechanisms by which adversity can shape development remain unclear. A translational cross-species approach was used to examine stress-mediated pathways by which poverty-related adversity can influence infant social development. Findings from a longitudinal sample of low-income mother-infant dyads indicated that infant cortisol (CORT) on its own did not mediate relations between early-life scarcity-adversity exposure and later infant behavior in a mother-child interaction task. However, maternal CORT through infant CORT served as a mediating pathway, even when controlling for parenting behavior. Findings using a rodent scarcity-adversity model indicated that pharmacologically blocking pup corticosterone (CORT, rodent equivalent to cortisol) in the presence of a stressed mother causally prevented social transmission of scarcity-adversity effects on pup social behavior. Furthermore, pharmacologically increasing pup CORT without the mother present was not sufficient to disrupt pup social behavior. Integration of our cross-species results suggests that elevated infant CORT may be necessary, but without elevated caregiver CORT, may not be sufficient in mediating the effects of environmental adversity on development. These findings underscore the importance of considering infant stress physiology in relation to the broader social context, including caregiver stress physiology, in research and interventional efforts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1696-1714
Number of pages19
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
Volume32
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2020

Keywords

  • corticosterone
  • cortisol
  • early-life adversity
  • early-life stress
  • mother-infant
  • social transmission

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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