Adverse childhood experiences (ACE), such as emotional or physical abuse, can produce a lasting effect on the individual. The aim of this study was to investigate how ACE may impact electromyography (EMG) activity of the trapezius muscle in a novel experimental stress paradigm, in a sample of 120 healthy participants. The stress paradigm consisted of a memory task, in which participants were asked to memorize and recall as many words as possible, displayed on a screen. The study protocol included 2 identical experimental sessions (T-0 = 0 and T-1 = 6 months). EMG activity was analyzed using multilevel regression analysis. EMG activity was higher during the memory task compared to baseline, supporting the validity of the experimental EMG-stress paradigm. In addition, the EMG increase was attenuated during the second session. Analyses were indicative for a moderating effect of ACE on stress-induced EMG activity: higher ACE scores resulted in greater EMG reactivity. These associations were apparent for early ACE exposure (0-11 years) as well as for later exposure (12-17 years). The association between ACE and EMG reactivity remained significant but was much weaker at T-1 in comparison to T-0, likely because of reduced unpredictability and uncertainty related to the experiment.
In conclusion, this study showed that enduring liabilities occasioned by ACE in a non-clinical population can be studied using an experimental paradigm of EMG stress reactivity, contingent on the level of predictability of the stressor.
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