Injury is the leading cause of death and disability in childhood. Injured children are at high risk for developing alterations in stress response systems and post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) that may compromise long-term physical and psychological health. In a prospective, observational cohort study, we examined individual differences in, and correlates of, stress-reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA; salivary cortisol) and autonomic nervous system (ANS; salivary alpha amylase, sAA) following pediatric injury. Participants were 8-15 years of age and hospitalized for traumatic brain injury (TBI; n=55; M age=13.9 yrs; 40 males) or extracranial injury (EI; n=29; M age 12.3 yrs, 20 males) following vehicular accidents. Six months post-injury, saliva was collected before and after the Trier Social Stress Test and later assayed for cortisol and sAA. Relative to a healthy non-injured comparison group (n=33; M age=12.5 yrs, 16 males), injured children (ages 8-12 years), but not adolescents (ages 13-15 yrs), had higher cortisol levels; regardless of age, injured participants showed dampened cortisol reactivity to social evaluative threat. Compared to participants with EI, children with TBI had elevated cortisol and adolescents had elevated sAA. With respect to PTSS, individual differences in sAA were negatively correlated with avoidance in the TBI group and positively correlated with emotional numbing within the EI group. Importantly, psychological and neurobiological sequelae were weakly related to injury severity. Given the high prevalence of pediatric injury, these sequelae affect many children and represent a significant public health concern. Consequently, surveillance of post-traumatic sequelae should include the full spectrum of injury severity. Monitoring the activity, reactivity, and regulation of biological systems sensitive to environmental insults may advance our understanding of individual differences in sequelae and adaptation following traumatic pediatric injury.
Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; Cortisol; Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal; Injury; Post-traumatic stress; Salivary alpha amylase.
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