UO researchers discover way to determine stress responses in children

Jeffrey Measelle
Jeffrey Measelle

UO researches have discovered a way to predict how a child will respond to stressful situations in the future by examining the child at five months of age.

A biological mechanism already considered a barometer for emotional regulation can be tapped in infants to make the stress-response prediction.

The mechanism involved is called respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) – a change of heart rate tied to breathing and regulated by the vagus nerve that stretches from the brain to the stomach. The vagus nerve branches widely and is also responsible for speech, swallowing and digestive processing.

A key factor in how children respond to stress is whether they were nurtured in a secure or a disorganized setting. Jeffrey Measelle, a UO psychology professor and co-author of the study published in “Psychological Science,” says RSA's connection to the parasympathetic nervous system serves as an emotional braking system following exposure to environmental stress.

Measelle's team examined data from a longitudinal project following women at risk for parenting problems and their children. Lead author Elisabeth Conradt, a former UO doctoral student, examined baseline RSA in 73 five-month-old infants under calm conditions – sitting on their mothers' laps and watching a calm portion of a “Baby Einstein” video.

The same babies were observed at 17 months of age when their mothers left the room and later returned as part of a series of strange-situation procedures. The ways the infants reacted to the separations and reunions were analyzed for clues related to their attachments to their mothers.

The researchers discovered children with high baseline RSA at age five months were more likely to exhibit problem behavior if their childrearing had fostered disorganization. However, children with high RSA whose childrearing fostered security were the least susceptible to problem behaviors.

"I think this study begins to answer the question of why some children reared in poverty are more likely to have negative outcomes while others do OK," says Conradt. "It may be that some infants are biologically predisposed to reap the benefits of a supportive caregiving environment, while others are unfortunately more affected by a negative caregiving environment."

The National Institute of Mental Health, National Science Foundation, a UO Associate Dean of Natural Sciences Discretionary Funds Award, and a fellowship to Ablow from the Oregon Community Credit Union supported the research.

- from the UO Office of Research, Innovation and Graduate Education