Pubertal transition with current life stress and support alters longitudinal diurnal cortisol patterns in adolescents exposed to early life adversity

Dev Psychobiol. 2021 May 30. doi: 10.1002/dev.22146. Online ahead of print.


Current and early life stress (ELS) are associated with diurnal cortisol patterns, which themselves are associated with mental and physical health. The pubertal recalibration hypothesis suggests that the social environment can impact dysregulated cortisol patterns for previously ELS-exposed youth as they transition through puberty. This study examined longitudinal change in cortisol awakening response (CAR) and diurnal slope (DS) across puberty as a function of ELS in infancy, current stress, and social support (N = 290, 7-17 years). The CAR and DS were examined thrice annually with an accelerated longitudinal design with nurse-assessed puberty to assess associations between diurnal cortisol and pubertal recalibration with ELS and the current social environment. Exposure to ELS was associated with less steep DS but not changes in CAR, and no evidence of pubertal calibration was found. The DS became less steep for youth in later pubertal stages and as youth progressed through puberty. The CAR was steeper for youth in later pubertal stages. Across the cohort, current life stress and support were associated with changes in the DS and the CAR through the pubertal transition. The pubertal stage and the peripubertal and pubertal social environment may have important implications for adrenocortical functioning with or without exposure to ELS.

Keywords: cortisol awakening response; diurnal cortisol; early life stress; puberty; social support; stress.