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Developmental changes in hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal activity over the transition to adolescence: Normative changes and associations with puberty

  • Megan R. Gunnar (a1), Sandi Wewerka (a1), Kristin Frenn (a1), Jeffrey D. Long (a1) and Christopher Griggs (a1)...


Home baseline and laboratory stressor (Trier Social Stress Test for Children) measures of salivary cortisol were obtained from 82 participants (40 girls) aged 9, 11, 13, and 15 years. Measures of pubertal development, self-reported stress, parent reports of child depressive symptoms and fearful temperament, and cardiac measures of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity were also obtained. Significant increases in the home cortisol baselines were found with age and pubertal development. Cortisol stress reactivity differed by age group with 11-year-olds and 13-year-old boys showing blunted reactivity and 9-year-olds, 13-year-old girls, and 15-year-olds showing significant cortisol reactions. Cortisol reactivity correlated marginally with sexual maturation. Measures of sympathetic activity revealed increased sympathetic modulation with age. Higher sympathetic tone was associated with more fearful temperament, whereas greater cortisol reactivity was associated with more anxious and depressed symptoms for girls. The importance of these findings for the hypothesis that puberty-associated increases in hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity heightens the risk of psychopathology is discussed.


Corresponding author

Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Megan R. Gunnar, Institute of Child Development, 51 East River Rd., University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455; E-mail:


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