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Childhood adversity moderates the influence of proximal episodic stress on the cortisol awakening response and depressive symptoms in adolescents

  • Lisa R. Starr (a1), Kimberly Dienes (a2), Catherine B. Stroud (a3), Zoey A. Shaw (a1), Y. Irina Li (a1), Fanny Mlawer (a4) and Meghan Huang (a1)...

Abstract

Childhood adversity (CA) is known to predict sensitization to proximal stressors. Researchers have suggested that disruptions in hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis functioning may be a biological mechanism. If so, CA may predict altered associations between proximal life stress and markers of cortisol secretion. We examined whether CA moderates associations between recent episodic stress and (a) the cortisol awakening response (CAR), and (b) depressive symptoms, in 241 adolescents aged 14–17 years (cortisol n = 196). Salivary cortisol was sampled at 0, 30, and 60 min postawakening for 2 days. The CAR was calculated as the area under the curve with respect to increase and waking cortisol. CA and episodic stress were assessed using contextual-threat-method-coded objective interviews. CA significantly interacted with episodic stress to predict both the CAR and depression. Among those with low CA, episodic stress predicted increased CAR but did not predict depression. For adolescents with high CA, episodic stress predicted lower CAR and higher depression. These interactions were found only for independent (uncontrollable, fateful) events, and not for dependent (self-generated) stress. Increased allostatic load resulting from CA exposure may interfere with adolescents' ability to optimally regulate their CAR in relation to recent stress, contributing to increased depression risk.

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Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Lisa R. Starr, Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology, University of Rochester, 491 Meliora Hall, Box 270266, Rochester, NY 14627; E-mail: lisa.starr@rochester.edu.

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This research was supported by funds from the University of Rochester. We thank the participating families for generously volunteering their time.

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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
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