Investigating the impact of early-life adversity on physiological, immune, and gene expression responses to acute stress: A pilot feasibility study

Idan Shalev*, Waylon J. Hastings, Laura Etzel, Salomon Israel, Michael A. Russell, Kelsie A. Hendrick, Megan Zinobile, Sue Rutherford Siegel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Objective Exposure to early-life adversity (ELA) can result in long-term changes to physiological systems, which predispose individuals to negative health outcomes. This biological embedding of stress-responsive systems may operate via dysregulation of physiological resources in response to common stressors. The present pilot study outlines a novel experimental design to test how young adults’ exposure to ELA influences neuroendocrine and inflammatory responses to acute stress. Materials and methods Participants were 12 males (mean age = 21.25), half of whom endorsed at least three significant adverse events up to age 18 years (‘ELA group’), and half who confirmed zero (‘controls’). Using a randomized within-subjects, between-groups experimental design, we induced acute psychosocial stress (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST), and included a no-stress control condition one week apart. During these sessions, we obtained repeated measurements of physiological reactivity, gene expression of the glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1), and plasma levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8 and TNFα) over a 4-hour window post-test. Results In this pilot study, the ELA group evinced higher cortisol response and blunted NR3C1 gene expression in response to the TSST compared with controls, while no differences were observed in the no-stress condition. For pro-inflammatory cytokines, only IL-6 increased significantly in response to the TSST, with no differences between the two groups. Conclusion Overall, this pilot feasibility study provides a framework to investigate the biological embedding of early-adversity via dysregulation across physiological and genomic systems in response to acute psychosocial stress. ELA may program such systems in a maladaptive manner more likely to manifest during times of duress, predisposing individuals to the negative health consequences of everyday stressors. Future studies with larger sample size including both males and females are needed to replicate and expand upon these preliminary findings.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere0221310
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Shalev et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.


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