The link between childhood trauma and depression: insights from HPA axis studies in humans

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2008 Jul;33(6):693-710. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.03.008.


Childhood trauma is a potent risk factor for developing depression in adulthood, particularly in response to additional stress. We here summarize results from a series of clinical studies suggesting that childhood trauma in humans is associated with sensitization of the neuroendocrine stress response, glucocorticoid resistance, increased central corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) activity, immune activation, and reduced hippocampal volume, closely paralleling several of the neuroendocrine features of depression. Neuroendocrine changes secondary to early-life stress likely reflect risk to develop depression in response to stress, potentially due to failure of a connected neural circuitry implicated in emotional, neuroendocrine and autonomic control to compensate in response to challenge. However, not all of depression is related to childhood trauma and our results suggest the existence of biologically distinguishable subtypes of depression as a function of childhood trauma that are also responsive to differential treatment. Other risk factors, such as female gender and genetic dispositions, interfere with components of the stress response and further increase vulnerability for depression. Similar associations apply to a spectrum of other psychiatric and medical disorders that frequently coincide with depression and are aggravated by stress. Taken together, this line of evidence demonstrates that psychoneuroendocrine research may ultimately promote optimized clinical care and help prevent the adverse outcomes of childhood trauma.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Depression / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Depression / etiology*
  • Depression / therapy
  • Feedback, Physiological / drug effects
  • Glucocorticoids / pharmacology
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / drug effects
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology
  • Neuropeptides / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Organ Size
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / drug effects
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Shock, Traumatic / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Shock, Traumatic / complications*
  • Shock, Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic / etiology
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Neuropeptides