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Diurnal cortisol rhythms in youth from risky families: Effects of cumulative risk exposure and variation in the serotonin transporter linked polymorphic region gene

  • Cynthia J. Willner (a1), Pamela A. Morris (a2), Dana Charles McCoy (a3) and Emma K. Adam (a4)

Building on research on cumulative risk and psychopathology, this study examines how cumulative risk exposure is associated with altered diurnal cortisol rhythms in an ethnically diverse, low-income sample of youth. In addition, consistent with a diathesis-stress perspective, this study explores whether the effect of environmental risk is moderated by allelic variation in the serotonin transporter linked polymorphic region (5-HTTLPR) gene. Results show that youth with greater cumulative risk exposure had flatter diurnal cortisol slopes, regardless of 5-HTTLPR genotype. However, the association of cumulative risk with average cortisol output (area under the curve [AUC]) was moderated by the 5-HTTLPR genotype. Among youth homozygous for the long allele, greater cumulative risk exposure was associated with lower cortisol AUC, driven by significant reductions in cortisol levels at waking. In contrast, there was a trend-level association between greater cumulative risk and higher cortisol AUC among youth carrying the short allele, driven by a trend-level increase in bedtime cortisol levels. Findings are discussed with regard to the relevance of dysregulated diurnal cortisol rhythms for the development of psychopathology and the implications of genetically mediated differences in psychophysiological adaptations to stress.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Cynthia J. Willner, Department of Human Development and Family Studies, College of Health and Human Development, Pennsylvania State University, 315-A Health and Human Development East Building, University Park, PA 16802; E-mail:
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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