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Long-term effect of early-life stress from earthquake exposure on working memory in adulthood

Authors Li N, Wang Y, Zhao X, Gao Y, Song M, Yu L, Wang L, Li N, Chen Q, Li Y, Cai J, Wang X

Received 18 May 2015

Accepted for publication 29 June 2015

Published 26 November 2015 Volume 2015:11 Pages 2959—2965


Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single-blind

Peer reviewers approved by Dr Xiang Mou

Peer reviewer comments 2

Editor who approved publication: Professor Wai Kwong Tang

Na Li,1-3* Yumei Wang,1-3* Xiaochuan Zhao,1-3 Yuanyuan Gao,1-3 Mei Song,1-3 Lulu Yu,1-3 Lan Wang,1-3 Ning Li,1-3 Qianqian Chen,1-3 Yunpeng Li,1-3 Jiajia Cai,1-3 Xueyi Wang1-3

1Department of Psychiatry, The First Hospital of Hebei Medical University, 2Mental Health Institute of Hebei Medical University, 3Brain Ageing and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, Hebei, People’s Republic of China

*These authors contributed equally to this work

Objective: The present study aimed to investigate the long-term effect of 1976 Tangshan earthquake exposure in early life on performance of working memory in adulthood.
Methods: A total of 907 study subjects born and raised in Tangshan were enrolled in this study. They were divided into three groups according to the dates of birth: infant exposure (3–12 months, n=274), prenatal exposure (n=269), and no exposure (born at least 1 year after the earthquake, n=364). The prenatal group was further divided into first, second, and third trimester subgroups based on the timing of exposure during pregnancy. Hopkins Verbal Learning Test-Revised and Brief Visuospatial Memory Test-Revised (BVMT-R) were used to measure the performance of working memory. Unconditional logistic regression analysis was used to analyze the influential factors for impaired working memory.
Results: The Hopkins Verbal Learning Test-Revised scores did not show significant difference across the three groups. Compared with no exposure group, the BVMT-R scores were slightly lower in the prenatal exposure group and markedly decreased in the infant exposure group. When the BVMT-R scores were analyzed in three subgroups, the results showed that the subjects whose mothers were exposed to earthquake in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy had significantly lower BVMT-R scores compared with those in the first trimester. Education level and early-life earthquake exposure were identified as independent risk factors for reduced performance of visuospatial memory indicated by lower BVMT-R scores.
Conclusion: Infant exposure to earthquake-related stress impairs visuospatial memory in adulthood. Fetuses in the middle and late stages of development are more vulnerable to stress-induced damage that consequently results in impaired visuospatial memory. Education and early-life trauma can also influence the performance of working memory in adulthood.

Keywords: Tangshan earthquake, early life stress, working memory, chronic effect

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