Early family environments and memory: the role of physiological and psychological responses to acute stress

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Childhood family environments have important implications for outcomes in adulthood. Specifically, the experience of adversity in childhood is related to numerous maladaptive outcomes later in life. It is currently unknown how early adversity affects memory consolidation and processing. Previous research has established an association with anxiety and depression possessing a negative memory bias. A negative memory bias is defined as attentional and perceptual favor towards information that is contextually negative or threatening. Research has not examined the relationship between negative memory bias and childhood adversity after the induction of stress. Stress has previously shown to be disruptive to memory outcomes. Further, a growing body of research has shown that early childhood adversity associates with blunted physiological responses to stress. It is possible that through the pathway of blunted reactivity, early childhood adversity associates with negative memory bias. To test these hypotheses, a sample of college students (N=64) studied a 50-word list that included 25 emotionally negative words and 25 emotionally neutral words. Participants then completed the Trier Social Stress Test, an evaluative stressor well known for inducing stress. After the stress task, participants were asked to freely recall words they previously studied. Results showed that higher ratings or risk and emotional abuse in childhood associated with increased negative word recall. The relationship was partially mediated through blunted heart rate reactivity to the stress task. Implications and future directions are discussed.




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