Examining the developmental interface of cortisol and depression symptoms in young adolescent girls

Kate Keenan, Alison Hipwell, Dara Babinski, Jenna Bortner, Angela Henneberger, Amanda Hinze, Susan Klostermann, Michal Rischall, Brenna Sapotichne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Despite the substantial amount of data supporting a link between HPA-axis functioning and depression, the ontogeny of this association is not known. The aim of the present study was to contribute data on the developmental interface of HPA-axis functioning and depression in girls by testing associations between repeated measures of depression symptoms and cortisol levels in childhood and early adolescence. Girls (N= 232) and their mothers, who were participating in a longitudinal study, were interviewed about depression symptoms annually from ages 9 to 12 years. Cortisol was assayed from saliva at ages 10 and 12 years upon arrival to the lab and following administration of the cold pressor task (CPT). Time of day of collection of saliva and level of pubertal development were included as covariates in model testing. Although most girls did not show an increase in cortisol in response to the CPT, lower levels of output during the CPT were associated with higher levels of depression symptoms. These findings were observed only for cortisol levels assessed at age 12 years. Girls with low levels of cortisol output at age 12, and decreases in output from ages 10 to 12, had stable or slightly increasing depression symptoms from ages 9 to 12 years. We conclude that associations between HPA-axis functioning and depression emerge as early as age 12. However, individual differences in cortisol levels at age 12 also were associated with depression symptoms at earlier ages. The data suggest two possibilities: (1) that childhood depression is associated with HPA-axis dysregulation, but that age related changes in the sensitivity or plasticity of the HPA-axis may result in a delay in the emergence of such an association, or (2) that dysregulation of the functioning of the HPA-axis develops following repeated experience of depression symptoms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2291-2299
Number of pages9
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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