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Early life stress, cortisol, frontolimbic connectivity, and depressive symptoms during puberty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2019

Katharina Kircanski*
Emotion and Development Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, MD, USA
Lucinda M. Sisk
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Tiffany C. Ho
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Kathryn L. Humphreys
Department of Psychology and Human Development, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA
Lucy S. King
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Natalie L. Colich
Department of Psychology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA
Sarah J. Ordaz
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Ian H. Gotlib
Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
Author for correspondence: Katharina Kircanski, Emotion and Development Branch, National Institute of Mental Health, 9000 Rockville Pike, Building 15K, MSC-2670, Bethesda, MD 20892-2670; E-mail:


Early life stress (ELS) is a risk factor for the development of depression in adolescence; the mediating neurobiological mechanisms, however, are unknown. In this study, we examined in early pubertal youth the associations among ELS, cortisol stress responsivity, and white matter microstructure of the uncinate fasciculus and the fornix, two key frontolimbic tracts; we also tested whether and how these variables predicted depressive symptoms in later puberty. A total of 208 participants (117 females; M age = 11.37 years; M Tanner stage = 2.03) provided data across two or more assessment modalities: ELS; salivary cortisol levels during a psychosocial stress task; diffusion magnetic resonance imaging; and depressive symptoms. In early puberty there were significant associations between higher ELS and decreased cortisol production, and between decreased cortisol production and increased fractional anisotropy in the uncinate fasciculus. Further, increased fractional anisotropy in the uncinate fasciculus predicted higher depressive symptoms in later puberty, above and beyond earlier symptoms. In post hoc analyses, we found that sex moderated several additional associations. We discuss these findings within a broader conceptual model linking ELS, emotion dysregulation, and depression across the transition through puberty, and contend that brain circuits implicated in the control of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis function should be a focus of continued research.

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Authors Katharina Kircanski and Lucinda M. Sisk contributed equally to the article.


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