Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Stress, hormones and emotion regulation

What is the role of stress and stress-related hormones in emotion regulation?

Marieke Tollenaar

Research has shown that stress-related disorders like anxiety and depression are related to changes in emotion regulation. For example, anxiety has been associated with heightened attention to threat-related information, and depression with a memory bias for negative information. My research focusses on the trans-diagnostic effects of stress and stress-related hormones on the processing and regulation of emotional information.

My research is mostly laboratory based and includes pharmacological manipulations of hormones like cortisol and oxytocin, and experimental paradigms to measure attentional processes, empathic reactions and memory for emotional information. Stress is studied both by acute induction via the Trier Social Stress Task(TSST), and via self-report questionnaires of daily life stress and early life stress (including childhood maltreatment).

Here I will mention some recent and ongoing research lines. The first is considered with the role of oxytocin and early life stress in emotion regulation. Oxytocin is also known as the "love" hormone and is thought to reduce anxiety and negative emotions, thus possibly reducing stress. Recently however, it has become clear that context (both personal and environmental characteristics) may moderate these anxiety-reducing effects. In the last couple of years, we have conducted two studies in which the effects of oxytocin on attention to emotional information were studied. The outcomes indicate heightened attention to both positive and negative information after oxytocin administration. Early life stress furthermore seem to moderate these effects. In two new studies the role of the oxytocin receptor gene will be studied in relation to depression, anxiety and borderline personality disorder, again in interaction with early and also recent life stress.

A second research line is involved with the effects of stress on empathic abilities. Empathy is known to be reduced in aggressive and abusive persons. This may indicate a role for empathy in child abuse, and possibly the intergenerational transmission of abuse. In a number of lab and questionnaire studies, the link between acute and early life stress and empathy are studied. I am also involved in the 3G family study on the intergenerational transmission of parenting styles, in collaborating with Child and Family studies and the Academy of Vitality and Ageing (supervision of PhD student Lisa van den Berg).

A third research line is involved with the effects of stress on emotional memory.Within an experimental setting with healthy subject,relations between recent and early life stress and memory for emotional information are measured. Furthermore, I am involved in a collaboration with the AMC in Amsterdam, where a study is ongoing on the effects of stress-related physiology during bad news consults on memory in oncology (supervision of PhD student Leonie Visser, KWF grant UVA 2012-5471).

Key publications

Tollenaar MS, Chatzimanoli M, van der Wee N, Putman P. Enhanced orienting of attention in response to emotional gaze cues after oxytocin administration in healthy young men. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2013, 38(9), 1797-802

Tollenaar MS, Elzinga BM, Spinhoven P, & Everaerd WA. The immediate and prolonged effects of cortisol and propranolol on declarative memory retrieval. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2009 Jan; 91(1): 23-31


Leiden:Prof. B.M. Elzinga, L. van den Berg (MSc), Dr. B. Verkuil, Dr. N. Antypa, Dr. M. Molendijk, Prof. W. van der Does, Prof. M. Ijzendoorn, Prof. M. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Prof. L. Alink, Dr. J. Lindenberg

UvA: Prof. E. Smets, L. Visser (MSc)

Abroad: Prof. I. Dziobek, Prof. H. Vertommen, Dr. L. Paesen, Dr. CD. Chiu

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