Early care experiences and HPA axis regulation in children: a mechanism for later trauma vulnerability

Prog Brain Res. 2008;167:137-49. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(07)67010-1.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is associated with functional abnormalities of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis. Emerging evidence suggests that failures in social regulation of the HPA axis in young children manifested as neglectful or abusive care may play a role in shaping cortico-limbic circuits involved in processing experiences threatening experiences encountered later in life. Low cortisol levels, particularly near the peak of the diurnal rhythm, have been reported in abused, neglected and deprived children. Thus early imprinting effects of parenting quality on the HPA system regulation may be one of the mechanisms causing heightened risk of PTSD in responses to later trauma. However there is also evidence that the altered patterns of cortisol production seen in the context of early adverse care are not permanent, and remit once the care children receive improves. What awaits study is whether periods of atypical cortisol levels and altered HPA function early in life, even if transient, impact brain development in ways that heighten vulnerability to PTSD in response to traumas experienced later.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child Care / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Parents
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology*