In the past decade, a body of animal and human research has revealed a profound influence of early-life experiences, ranging from variations in parenting behaviour to severe adversity, on hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis regulation in adulthood. In our own previous studies, we have shown how variations in early-life parental care influence the development of the hippocampus and modify the cortisol awakening response.
In the present study, we investigated the influence of early-life maternal care on cortisol, heart rate and subjective psychological responses to the repeated administration of a psychosocial laboratory stressor in a population of 63 healthy young adults. Low, medium and high early-life maternal care groups were identified using the Parental Bonding Instrument.
Controlling for the effect of sex, we found an inverted u-shaped relation between increasing levels of maternal care and cortisol stress responsivity. Specifically, overall and stress-induced cortisol levels went from below normal in the low maternal care, to normal in the medium care, back to below normal in the high maternal care groups. We found no group differences with respect to heart rate and subjective psychological stress measures. Whereas low and high maternal care groups exhibited similarly low endocrine stress responses, their psychological profiles were opposed with increased levels of depression and anxiety and decreased self-esteem in the low care group.
Sex was unequally distributed among maternal care groups, whereby the number of men with low maternal care was too small to allow introducing sex as a second between-group variable.
We discuss the potential significance of this dissociation between endocrine and psychological parameters with respect to stress vulnerability and resistance for each maternal care group.