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Author Notes:

Correspondence to Tanja Jovanovic, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, 49 Jesse Hill Jr Dr, Atlanta, GA 30303, USA; Tel: +1 404 778-1485; Email: tjovano@emory.edu.

We thank Allen Graham, BA, Daniel Crain, BS, Lamya Khoury, BS, Lauren Sands, BA, and Dorthie Cross, MA, as well as the nurses and staff of the Grady GCRC for their assistance with data collection and support.

Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Research Funding:

This work was primarily supported by National Institutes of Mental Health (MH071537) and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Support was also given by the Emory and Grady Memorial Hospital General Clinical Research Center, NIH National Centers for Research Resources (M01 RR00039), and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.


  • Social Sciences
  • Science & Technology
  • Life Sciences & Biomedicine
  • Psychology, Developmental
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology
  • Child abuse
  • maternal trauma
  • child anxiety
  • startle response
  • heart-rate variability
  • PTSD

Physiological markers of anxiety are increased in children of abused mothers


Journal Title:

Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry


Volume 52, Number 8


, Pages 844-852

Type of Work:

Article | Final Publisher PDF


Background: A growing number of studies indicate that low income, African American men and women living in urban environments are at high risk for trauma exposure, which may have intergenerational effects. The current study employed psychophysiological methods to describe biomarkers of anxiety in children of traumatized mothers. Methods: Study participants were recruited from a highly traumatized urban population, comprising mother–child pairs (n = 36) that included school-age children. Mothers were assessed for childhood abuse with the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, as well as symptoms of depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The children were measured for dark-enhanced startle responses and heart-rate variability. Results: Dark-enhanced startle was found to be higher in children whose mothers had high levels of childhood physical abuse, as compared to children whose mothers had low levels of physical abuse. During the habituation phase of the startle experiment, children whose mothers had high levels of childhood emotional abuse had higher sympathetic system activation compared to children of mothers with low emotional abuse. These effects remained significant after accounting for maternal symptoms of PTSD and depression, as well as for the child’s trauma exposure. Conclusion: These results demonstrate that children of mothers who have history of childhood physical and emotional abuse have higher dark-enhanced startle as well as greater sympathetic nervous system activation than children of mothers who do not report a history of childhood physical and emotional abuse, and emphasize the utility of physiological measures as pervasive biomarkers of psychopathology that can easily be measured in children.

Copyright information:

© 2011 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.

This is an Open Access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.5/).

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