Faculty Sponsor

Hannah White

Final Abstract for URS Program

Chronically elevated baseline cortisol levels may be associated with memory impairment in infants. Studies have shown that acute elevated stress levels are linked to better overall cognitive performance and enhanced short-term memory, however, chronically elevated stress levels seem to have quite the opposite effect. Although infant data concerning chronic stress and memory is lacking, clinical research studies that have been conducted on adults suggest that chronically elevated cortisol levels may be associated with a plethora of cognitive deficits, including poorer episodic and spatial memory, disrupted learning ability, and difficulty with forming long-term memories. This study analyzed secondary data to examine 3-month-old infants’ (N = 95) basal cortisol levels and data collected from a visual preference task, in order to determine whether there is a correlation between elevated baseline stress levels and infant visual recognition memory (indexed via habituation). The results of the study indicated no significant effect of cortisol on infant visual recognition memory. This could possibly reflect that the impact of stress exposure has not yet reached the threshold to disrupt memory processes for the infant. Alternatively, it may be due to the utilization of secondary data in the study, such that the brief nature of the task may not have been sensitive enough to detect memory deficits. Future studies with more extensive memory testing protocols (such as peak habituation) should be implemented in order to differentiate these alternatives. Further understanding how early exposure to stress impacts infant cognitive development will be critical for determining the conditions necessary in order to ensure optimal brain growth for learning, memory and other higher-order functioning.

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