Cortisol profiles: A test for adaptive calibration of the stress response system in maltreated and nonmaltreated youth

Melissa K. Peckins, Elizabeth J. Susman, Sonya Negriff, Jennie Noll, Penelope K. Trickett

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Throughout the life span, exposure to chronic stress such as child maltreatment is thought to contribute to future dysfunction of the stress response system (SRS) through the process of adaptive calibration. Dysfunction of the SRS is associated with numerous health and behavior problems, so it is important to understand under what conditions and what time frame adaptive calibration occurs. The present study tested for adaptive calibration of the SRS in a sample of maltreated (n = 303) and nonmaltreated (n = 151) youth during the important developmental period of adolescence. Data were used from Waves 2, 3, and 4 of a larger study of the consequences of maltreatment on health and well-being. At each time point, participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test for Children and provided a baseline and four poststressor saliva samples to measure cortisol reactivity. Adaptive calibration was tested by performing a latent profile analysis using the five samples of salivary cortisol provided at each time point, and testing whether maltreatment status predicted the likelihood of profile membership at Time 2, Time 3, and Time 4. Three cortisol profiles emerged from the data at each time point (blunted, moderate, and elevated), and results indicated that maltreated youth were more likely than nonmaltreated youth to present with the blunted cortisol profile compared to the moderate and elevated profiles at Time 2 and Time 3, even after controlling for recent exposure to violence and trauma. At Time 4, there was no longer a difference in profile membership between maltreated and nonmaltreated youth, suggesting adaptive calibration may be a lengthy process requiring a period of years to become evident. Overall, the findings provide support for adaptive calibration and offer insight into the conditions under which adaptive calibration occurs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1461-1470
Number of pages10
JournalDevelopment and Psychopathology
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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