Journal of abnormal psychology

Cortisol reactivity to stress among youth: stability over time and genetic variants for stress sensitivity.

PMID 25688432


Stress sensitivity may be one process that can explain why some genetically at-risk individuals are more susceptible to some types of stress-reactive psychopathologies. Dysregulation of the limbic-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (LHPA) axis, including cortisol reactivity to challenge, represents a key aspect of stress sensitivity. However, the degree of stability over time among youth, especially differential stability as a function of particular genetic variants, has not been investigated. A general community sample of children and adolescents (mean age = 11.4; 56% girls) provided a DNA sample and completed 2 separate laboratory stress challenges, across an 18-month follow-up (N = 224 at Time 1; N = 194 at Time 2), with repeated measures of salivary cortisol. Results showed that test-retest stability for several indices of cortisol reactivity across the laboratory challenge visits were significant and of moderate magnitude for the whole sample. Moreover, gene variants of several biologically plausible systems relevant for stress sensitivity (especially 5-HTTLPR and CRHR1) demonstrated differential stability of cortisol reactivity over 18-months, such that carriers of genotypes conferring enhanced environmental susceptibility exhibited greater stability of cortisol levels over time for some LHPA axis indices. Findings suggest that LHPA axis dysregulation may exhibit some trait-like aspects underlying stress sensitivity in youth, especially for those who carry genes related to greater genetic susceptibility to environmental stress.