Background: We have previously reported higher and more variable salivary morning cortisol in 13-year-old adolescents whose mothers were depressed in the postnatal period, compared with control group adolescents whose mothers did not develop postnatal depression (PND). This observation suggested a biological mechanism by which intrafamilial risk for depressive disorder may be transmitted. In the current article, we examined whether the cortisol disturbances observed at 13 years could predict depressive symptomatology in adolescents at 16 years of age.
Methods: We measured self-reported depressive symptoms in 16-year-old adolescents who had (n = 48) or had not (n = 39) been exposed to postnatal maternal depression and examined their prediction by morning and evening cortisol indices obtained via 10 days of salivary collections at 13 years.
Results: Elevated morning cortisol secretion at 13 years, and particularly the maximum level recorded over 10 days of collection, predicted elevated depressive symptoms at 16 years over and above 13-year depressive symptom levels and other possible confounding factors. Morning cortisol secretion mediated an association between maternal PND and symptomatology in 16-year-old offspring.
Conclusions: Alterations in steroid secretion observed in association with maternal PND may provide a mechanism by which risk for depression is transmitted from mother to offspring.