Cortisol levels in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

J Psychiatr Res. 2012 Nov;46(11):1398-405. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2012.08.021. Epub 2012 Sep 10.


Regulation of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA-axis) and its end product cortisol differs among persons with certain psychiatric disorders when compared with controls. Some reports concern Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but findings are inconclusive. In this study we collected four saliva samples during a regular weekday in children, 6-17 years old, with ADHD (n = 201) and non-affected comparisons (n = 221). Saliva cortisol was measured with radioimmunoassay technique. Clinical data were collected for diagnostic information. Subtypes and severity of symptoms were determined using parental rating scales. Children with ADHD had lower saliva cortisol levels than comparisons at waking up Median = 9.1 versus 12.7 nmol/L (p < .001), 30 min later Median = 15.8 versus 20.1 nmol/L (p < .001) and before going to bed Median = 0.8 versus 1.0 nmol/L (p = .015). No difference was found for the afternoon sample. When the study group was split into three different age groups similar results were found only for children above 10 years of age. Subtype of ADHD or co-occurring symptoms did not affect the cortisol levels. Degree of severity of ADHD symptoms was not associated with cortisol levels in the study group, other than a weak negative correlation between the afternoon sample and hyperactivity symptoms. The low cortisol levels in children with ADHD may indicate a dysregulation of the HPA-axis, for instance a down-regulation or a phase delay of the diurnal curve. The low levels may be related to the under-arousal possibly underlying several of the core symptoms of ADHD.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / classification
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / metabolism*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Hydrocortisone