Validation of autonomic and endocrine reactivity to a laboratory stressor in young children

Leslie E. Roos, Ryan J. Giuliano, Kathryn G. Beauchamp, Megan Gunnar, Brigette Amidon, Philip A. Fisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


The validation of laboratory paradigms that reliably induce a stress response [including hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and autonomic nervous system (ANS) activation], is critical for understanding how children's stress-response systems support emotional and cognitive function. Early childhood research to date is markedly limited, given the difficulty in establishing paradigms that reliably induce a cortisol response. Furthermore, research to date has not included a control condition or examined concurrent ANS reactivity. We addressed these limitations by characterizing the extent to which a modified matching task stressor paradigm induces HPA and ANS activation, beyond a closely matched control condition. Modifications include an unfamiliar and unfriendly assessor to increase the stressful nature of the task. Results validate the matching task as a laboratory stressor, with significant differences in HPA and ANS responsivity between conditions. The Stressor group exhibited a cortisol increase post-stressor, while the Control group was stable over time. Children in both conditions exhibited reduced parasympathetic activity to the first-half of the task, but in the second-half, only children in the Stressor condition, who were experiencing exaggerated signals of failure, exhibited further parasympathetic decline. The Stressor condition induced higher sympathetic activity (versus Control) throughout the task, with exaggerated second-half differences. Within the Stressor condition, responsivity was convergent across systems, with greater cortisol reactivity correlated with the magnitude of parasympathetic withdrawal and sympathetic engagement. Future research employing the matching task will facilitate understanding the role of HPA and ANS function in development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-55
Number of pages5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd


  • Acute stress
  • Autonomic nervous system
  • Child
  • Cortisol


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