An exploratory analysis of the joint contribution of HPA axis activation and motivation to early adolescent depressive symptoms

Dev Psychobiol. 2018 Apr;60(3):303-316. doi: 10.1002/dev.21600. Epub 2018 Jan 18.


This study examines the interactive contribution of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and approach-avoidance motivation systems to longitudinal changes in depressive symptoms across the adolescent transition. In the summer prior to, or fall of, 4th grade, 132 youth (68 girls; 64 boys; M age = 9.46 years) participated in a social challenge task and reported on their depressive symptoms. In the winter of 6th grade, youth completed a semi-structured interview of depression and a self-report measure of approach-avoidance motivations. Analyses revealed two profiles of risk for adolescent depressive symptoms, with some gender differences: (1) excessive disengagement, reflected in HPA underactivation along with low approach motivation or high avoidance motivation; and (2) excessive engagement, reflected in HPA overactivation along with high approach motivation. This research highlights the importance of a multi-system perspective on development, suggesting that the implications of HPA dysregulation for depressive symptoms are contingent on adolescents' tendencies toward approach versus avoidance.

Keywords: adolescence; cortisol; depression; gender; motivation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / physiology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / physiology*
  • Depression / diagnosis*
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism*
  • Saliva


  • Hydrocortisone