Current psychosocial stress, childhood trauma and cognition in patients with schizophrenia and healthy participants

Karolina I. Rokita, Maria R. Dauvermann, David Mothersill, Laurena Holleran, Paridhi Bhatnagar, Áine McNicholas, Declan McKernan, Derek W. Morris, John Kelly, Brian Hallahan, Colm McDonald, Gary Donohoe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Cognitive difficulties are experienced frequently in schizophrenia (SZ) and are strongly predictive of functional outcome. Although severity of cognitive difficulties has been robustly associated with early life adversity, whether and how they are affected by current stress is unknown. The present study investigated whether acute stress reactivity as measured by heart rate and mood changes predict cognitive performance in patients with schizophrenia and healthy individuals, and whether this is moderated by diagnosis and previous childhood trauma exposure.

Methods: One hundred and four patients with schizophrenia and 207 healthy participants were administered a battery of tasks assessing cognitive performance after psychosocial stress induction (Trier Social Stress Test; TSST). Mood states (Profile of Mood States; POMS) and heart rate were assessed at baseline, immediately before, and after the TSST.

Results: Both healthy participants and patients showed increases in POMS Tension and Total Mood Disturbance scores between Time Point 2 (pre-TSST) and Time Point 3 (post-TSST). These changes were not associated with variation in cognition. Although childhood trauma exposure was associated with higher stress reactivity and poorer cognitive function in all participants, childhood trauma did not moderate the association between stress reactivity and cognition. Neither was diagnosis a moderator of this relationship.

Discussion: These findings suggest that while chronic stress exposure explains significant variation in cognition, acute stress reactivity (measured by changes in Tension and Total Mood Disturbance) did not. In the context of broader developmental processes, we conclude that stressful events that occur earlier in development, and with greater chronicity, are likely to be more strongly associated with cognitive variation than acute transient stressors experienced in adulthood.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-121
Number of pages7
JournalSchizophrenia Research
Early online date11 Sep 2021
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Caroline Cullen, Catherine O'Donoghue, Laura McHugh, Jessica Holland, Ru?n Kane, Laura Costello and Niamh Daly Ryan for their assistance with the project. We also sincerely thank all participants who took part in the study. This work was funded by grants to GD from the European Research Council (ERC-2015-STG-677467) and Science Foundation Ireland (SFI-16/ERCS/3787).


  • Acute stress
  • Childhood trauma
  • Cognition
  • Schizophrenia
  • Trier social stress task

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


Dive into the research topics of 'Current psychosocial stress, childhood trauma and cognition in patients with schizophrenia and healthy participants'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this