A discordant monozygotic twin design shows blunted cortisol reactivity among bullied children

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Jun;50(6):574-582.e3. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2011.02.015. Epub 2011 Apr 22.


Objective: Childhood adverse experiences are known to engender persistent changes in stress-related systems and brain structures involved in mood, cognition, and behavior in animal models. Uncertainty remains about the causal effect of early stressful experiences on physiological response to stress in human beings, as the impact of these experiences has rarely been investigated while controlling for both genetic and shared environmental influences.

Method: We tested whether bullying victimization, a repeated adverse experience in childhood, influences cortisol responses to a psychosocial stress test (PST) using a discordant monozygotic (MZ) twin design. Thirty pairs (43.3% males) of 12-year-old MZ twins discordant for bullying victimization were identified in the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, a nationally representative 1994-1995 cohort of families with twins.

Results: Bullied and nonbullied MZ twins showed distinct patterns of cortisol secretion after the PST. Specifically, bullied twins exhibited a blunted cortisol response compared with their nonbullied MZ co-twins, who showed the expected increase. This difference in cortisol response to stress could not be attributed to children's genetic makeup, their familial environments, pre-existing and concomitant individual factors, or the perception of stress and emotional response to the PST.

Conclusion: Results from this natural experiment provide support for a causal effect of adverse childhood experiences on the neuroendocrine response to stress.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / genetics
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Bullying / psychology*
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Crime Victims / psychology
  • Diseases in Twins / blood*
  • Diseases in Twins / genetics*
  • Diseases in Twins / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Internal-External Control
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Environment
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Twins, Monozygotic / genetics*
  • Twins, Monozygotic / psychology
  • United Kingdom


  • Hydrocortisone