Early Caregiving and Human Biobehavioral Development: A Comparative Physiology Approach.
Although there is much evidence of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysfunction among individuals who have experienced child maltreatment, dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has received less attention. Understanding the role of the ANS in maltreated children may help clarify how these children respond to subsequent life stress. We explored ANS reactivity among 111 youth (ages 9-14), 34 of whom had experienced verified child maltreatment. ANS activity was assessed via blood pressure-a convenient, noninvasive physiological index-while youth underwent a social stress task. Blood pressure and subjective mood ratings were obtained prior to and following the task. Nonmaltreated youth experienced an increase in systolic blood pressure following the stressor, whereas maltreated youth did not. Self-reported subjective mood worsened for both groups. The current data suggest that children who experienced early stress exposure demonstrate blunted ANS reactivity. Results are discussed in terms of children's healthy adaptations to transient social stressors. In addition, we discuss the cost-effectiveness and benefits of physiological measures such as blood pressure for understanding risk for psychopathology.