Maternal immune and affiliative biomarkers and sensitive parenting mediate the effects of chronic early trauma on child anxiety

A. Ulmer-Yaniv, A. Djalovski, K. Yirmiya, G. Halevi, O. Zagoory-Sharon, R. Feldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

48 Scopus citations


Background. Chronic early trauma alters children's stress reactivity and increases the prevalence of anxiety disorders; yet the neuroendocrine and immune mechanisms underpinning this effect are not fully clear. Animal studies indicate that the mother's physiology and behavior mediate offspring stress in a system-specific manner, but few studies tested this external-regulatory maternal role in human children exposed to chronic stress. Methods. We followed a unique cohort of children exposed to continuous wartime trauma (N = 177; exposed; N = 101, controls; N = 76). At 10 years, maternal and child's salivary immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) and oxytocin (OT), biomarkers of the immune and affiliation systems, were assayed, maternal and child relational behaviors observed, mother and child underwent psychiatric diagnosis, and child anxiety symptoms assessed. Results. War-exposed mothers had higher s-IgA, lower OT, more anxiety symptoms, and their parenting was characterized by reduced sensitivity. Exposed children showed higher s-IgA, more anxiety disorders and post traumatic stress disorder, and more anxiety symptoms. Path analysis model defined three pathways by which maternal physiology and behavior impacted child anxiety; (a) increasing maternal s-IgA, which led to increased child s-IgA, augmenting child anxiety; (b) reducing maternal OT, which linked with diminished child OT and social repertoire; and (c) increasing maternal anxiety, which directly impacted child anxiety. Conclusions. Our findings, the first to measure immune and affiliation biomarkers in mothers and children, detail their unique and joint effects on children's anxiety in response to stress; highlight the relations between chronic stress, immune activation, and anxiety in children; and describe how processes of biobehavioral synchrony shape children's long-term adaptation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1020-1033
Number of pages14
JournalPsychological Medicine
Issue number6
StatePublished - Apr 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2017.


  • Childhood anxiety disorders
  • Early life stress
  • Maternal behavior
  • Oxytocin
  • Salivary IgA
  • Trauma
  • War exposure


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