UMass Boston

Hair Cortisol

The purpose of this study is to better understand the effects of chronic stress on mothers and their infants. First, women are prone to chronic stress within the first year of giving birth, and these experiences are known to have an adverse effect on infants' development including the organization of their HPA axis and other stress related systems. Second, not only are there few studies pertaining to the effects of chronic stress on mothers and infants, but the measurement of chronic stress in any population is problematic. Assessing chronic stress is particularly difficult in populations such as infants, since subjective reports from others falls short of identifying the infants' experience.

Hair cortisol is an emerging biomarker that may be an effective method for measuring HPA activity. We collect hair samples from mothers and infants to look at this hormone. The amount of hair (roughly 50 strands) is less than one loses in a typical day and the cortisol collected via the hair should give us a picture of 3-6 months. Hair cortisol may provide an effective marker for stress related disorders and be an important tool for determining risk of later developmental problems among infants. Our study follows mothers and infants from 9-12 months postpartum. By using the up-to-date hair cortisol sampling and assay procedures, we expect that the hair sampled from mothers and infants at these time points will provide retrospective cortisol data from the previous 3 months. We also have mothers fill out questionnaires that tell us about any chronic stress, depression and anxiety symptoms, and trauma exposure they may have experienced in that time frame.

This project has the potential to establish a useful and efficient biomarker for chronic stress in mothers and infants.

This study is under the direction of Cindy Liu, PhD, one of the assistant research professors in our lab.

The Child Development Unit

University of Massachusetts Boston
100 Morrissey Blvd.
Wheatley Hall, 3rd Floor, Suite 120
Boston, MA 02125-3393