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PhD Studentship - Pathways to Hyper-arousal in Response to Infant Distress

Anglia Ruskin University - Faculty of Science & Engineering

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Cambridge
Funding for: UK Students
Funding amount: £18,622 per year tax-free stipend (2023-24 rate).
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 20th December 2023
Closes: 3rd March 2024
Reference: 546405
 

About ARU:
We are ranked in the world’s top 350 institutions in the 2022 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and we are a global university transforming lives through innovative, inclusive and entrepreneurial education and research. Our research institutes and four faculties bridge scientific, technical and creative fields. We deliver impactful research which tackles pressing issues and makes a real difference to our communities. Our academic excellence has been recognised by the UK’s Higher Education funding bodies, with 16 of our research areas assessed as world-leading. In 2021, we were awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for our world-leading music therapy work.

About the Role:
Anglia Ruskin University is inviting applications for a fully-funded Vice-Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship for a period of 36 months within the School of Psychology and Sport Science, Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Project Description:
Infant crying serves an evolutionary function, signalling distress to caregivers who are hardwired to be aroused by this stimulus, thus eliciting caregiving and promoting survival. Unfortunately, infant crying can also trigger abuse by parents who demonstrate hyper-arousal in response to infant distress (e.g., Frodi & Lamb, 1980). One study reported that 5 - 6% of parents have smothered, slapped, or shaken their baby at least once because of its crying (Reijneveld et al. 2004). Recent figures published by the NSPCC in 2018 recorded that 220 infants had died from shaken baby syndrome (also referred to as non-accidental head injuries) in the UK in the previous decade (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-49906916).

Studies examining physiological responses to stress go some way to explaining the mechanisms by which some individuals may show heightened reactivity to infant distress. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), as measured by cortisol, is known to be affected by infant distress cues (Byrd, Calvi & Kennison, 2016). The enzyme alpha-amylase (sAA) is also reported to react to physiological and psychological stressors, providing a marker of autonomic nervous system activity (Nater et al. 2005). Finally, decreased heart rate variability (HRV), indicating disturbed autonomic nervous system function, has been associated with mental stress, and signals a lack of ability to respond (Horsten et al. 1999). Thus, physiological hyper-reactivity is proposed as a mechanism to explain why some individuals are more susceptible to harsh caregiving (Out et al., 2010).

Our current work uses lab-based studies that measure adults’ self-reported responses (intentional response and aversiveness rating) in response to audio samples of infant emotional signals (crying and laughter), in addition to collecting saliva samples and measuring heart rate variability to measure physiological arousal. One of the key novel components of this research is that we are analysing the acoustic properties of the cry and laughter stimuli (duration, frequency, amplitude and non-linear phenomena) and will test the contribution that this has on participants’ stress responses to the stimuli. The PhD programme of research will extend this work to further identify the risk factors that presuppose an individual to hyper arousal in response to infant distress in a larger sample.

The award is subject to the successful candidate meeting the studentship Terms and Conditions which can be found on our website (accessed by the 'Apply' button) alongside further information about the project: https://aru.ac.uk/research/postgraduate-research/vc-phd-scholarships and enquiries can be directed to phdscholarships@aru.ac.uk.

We are committed to safeguarding and promoting welfare of our staff and students and expect all staff to share this commitment.

We value diversity at ARU and welcome applications from all sections of the community.

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