During the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) stay, very preterm (VPT) infants are exposed to life-saving yet pain-inducing skin-breaking procedures (i.e., NICU pain-related stress) which contribute to the programming of hypo-responsive HPA axis development during the first months of life. Unfortunately, to date the mechanisms linking NICU pain-related stress and altered HPA axis regulation are only limitedly known. Telomere length (TL) regulation is an epigenetic mechanism previously shown to be affected by early stress exposures and capable of associating with HPA axis reactivity in children. In VPT infants, NICU pain-related stress was found to associate with decreased TL from birth to discharge, but there is no evidence for the association between TL and HPA axis in these infants. In this study, we prospectively examined the relationship between NICU pain-related stress and HPA axis reactivity to an age-appropriate socio-emotional condition (i.e., the Still-Face Procedure, SFP) in healthy VPT infants at 3-month corrected age. NICU pain-related stress was computed as the ratio between the number of skin-breaking procedures and length of NICU stay. A differential score (i.e., ∆TL) was obtained subtracting TL at birth from TL at discharge. A normalized (log10) cortisol reactivity index (CRI) was obtained by averaging post-stress (20 min after SFP) salivary cortisol sample on baseline value. A regression model controlling for neonatal and socio-demographic confounders showed that ∆TL was the only significant predictor of CRI. Although preliminary, these findings contribute to our knowledge of the mechanisms linking early exposures to adversity and later in life regulation of the HPA axis in VPT infants.
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