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Declarative memory, cortisol reactivity, and psychological symptoms in chronically abused girls

Caterina Cianciulli, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The influence of trauma on neuroendocrine functions and related problems with declarative memory (short term verbal memory) has been documented in several studies focused on adult survivors of trauma. However, the impact of trauma on neuroendocrine and cognitive development of children and adolescents has not yet been explored. Declarative memory functioning, cortisol reactivity and psychological symptoms were examined in nineteen adolescent female survivors (nine depressed and ten non-depressed) of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and compared to eleven non-abused controls. Salivary cortisol measurements (initial baseline assessment, assessment after an emotionally challenging task, followed by second baseline one week later) were used to assess cortisol reactivity. The relationship between patterns of cortisol reactivity and declarative memory functioning was examined, as assessed by scores on selected subtests of the California Verbal Learning Tests. Similarly, the relationship between patterns of cortisol reactivity and psychological symptoms, as reported on the Trauma Symptom Checklist for Children, was also assessed. Results indicated the presence of different patterns of cortisol reactivity during a challenging task for the girt survivors of chronic trauma (depressed and non-depressed) as compared to controls. The abused girls most frequently exhibited increased cortisol release from the initial baseline to the subsequent measurement times, whereas cortisol levels generally decreased in the control group. Furthermore, in girl survivors of chronic trauma, the larger increases in cortisol release were related to lower declarative memory scores and to more symptoms of dissociation, depression, posttraumatic stress, anger, and anxiety. Although the subject sample was small, the results supported the existence of a link between exposure to trauma, adrenocortical reactivity, and to a lesser extent, declarative memory functioning. Similar results have been widely documented in adults with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These findings have implications in terms of understanding of neurobiological development of trauma survivors. Indeed, neurohormonal alterations (changes in cortisol reactivity) influence response to stress, emotional regulation, and behavioral adjustment. Therefore, understanding of the relationship of cortisol reactivity with cognitive and emotional symptoms in young trauma survivors will enhance the identification of at-risk individuals and will help in preventing the development of long lasting deficits in emotional and behavioral functioning.

Subject Area

Psychotherapy|Physiological psychology|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Cianciulli, Caterina, "Declarative memory, cortisol reactivity, and psychological symptoms in chronically abused girls" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9988773.