Environmental determinants of physiological reactivity to stress: The interacting effects of early life deprivation, caregiving quality, and stressful life events

Mark Wade, Margaret A. Sheridan, Charles H. Zeanah, Nathan A. Fox, Charles A. Nelson and Katie A. McLaughlin - Development and Psychopathology


Children who spend their early lives in institutions experience profound psychosocial deprivation that is associated with altered stress response system development. Here, we used data from a longitudinal randomized controlled trial of foster care for institutionally reared children to examine whether caregiving quality and stressful life events (SLEs) in early adolescence (age 12) influence patterns of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactivity. Controlling for the effect of institutional care, higher caregiving quality at age 12 was associated with heightened cortisol and SNS reactivity. However, moderation analysis revealed that the latter effect was only observed among never-institutionalized children, whereas ever-institutionalized children demonstrated a persistently blunted SNS response regardless of recent caregiving quality. Among institutionally reared children, SLEs interacted with prior random assignment to foster care, such that those placed in foster care early in development had a SNS response that approximated never-institutionalized children when SLEs at age 12 were low. In contrast, SNS reactivity was persistently blunted among those with prolonged deprivation, regardless of recent SLEs. Early-life deprivation is associated with persistent blunting of stress response systems, but normalization may be achievable if SLEs are limited following placement into enriched family-based care.