There is accumulating evidence that both dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and cortisol play an important role in regulating physical maturation and brain development. High DHEA levels tend to be associated with neuroprotective and indirect anabolic effects, while high cortisol levels tend to be associated with catabolic and neurotoxic properties. Previous literature has linked the ratio between DHEA and cortisol levels (DC ratio) to disorders of attention, emotional regulation and conduct, but little is known as to the relationship between this ratio and brain development. Due to the extensive links between the amygdala and the cortex as well as the known amygdalar involvement in emotional regulation, we examined associations between DC ratio, structural covariance of the amygdala with whole-brain cortical thickness, and validated report-based measures of attention, working memory, internalizing and externalizing symptoms, in a longitudinal sample of typically developing children and adolescents 6-22 years of age. We found that DC ratio predicted covariance between amygdalar volume and the medial anterior cingulate cortex, particularly in the right hemisphere. DC ratio had a significant indirect effect on working memory through its impact on prefrontal-amygdalar covariance, with higher DC ratios associated with a prefrontal-amygdalar covariance pattern predictive of higher scores on a measure of working memory. Taken together, these findings support the notion, as suggested by animal and in vitro studies, that there are opposing effects of DHEA and cortisol on brain development in humans, and that these effects may especially target prefrontal-amygdalar development and working memory, in a lateralized fashion.
Keywords: Adolescence; Adrenarche; Androgens; Attention; Human brain; Puberty.
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