Prenatal maternal mood is associated with altered diurnal cortisol in adolescence

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Sep;38(9):1630-8. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.01.008. Epub 2013 Feb 22.


Background: Experimental animal work shows that prenatal stress has a persisting effect on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis of offspring. The implications of these findings for human health and development are not yet clear.

Methods: The data are based on the ALSPAC cohort, a prospective longitudinal study of a community sample that has followed mothers and children from pregnancy. When the children were aged 15 years, diurnal cortisol samples were collected at wake-up, 30 min post-awakening and at afternoon and evening times on up to three consecutive days on n=889 adolescents. Diurnal cortisol was predicted from prenatal anxiety and depression, obstetric, life-style, socio-demographic, and postnatal covariates.

Results: Multilevel model analysis indicated that maternal prenatal anxiety was associated with a modest alteration of diurnal cortisol, indexed by a reduced cortisol awakening response and flatter diurnal slope. The effects were independent of psychosocial and obstetric covariates and measures of maternal postnatal anxiety; effects were similar for prenatal maternal depression. There was no association between adolescent cortisol and paternal prenatal anxiety.

Conclusions: There are small but persisting associations between maternal prenatal mood and diurnal cortisol in the child that persist into adolescence and may constitute a programming effect.

Keywords: ALSPAC; Cortisol; Developmental programming; HPA axis; Prenatal anxiety.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent / physiology*
  • Affect*
  • Anxiety / physiopathology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Depression / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / embryology*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / embryology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy Complications / psychology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Sampling Studies
  • Secretory Rate
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Wakefulness


  • Hydrocortisone