Linking specific biological signatures to different childhood adversities: findings from the HERO project

Pediatr Res. 2023 Jan 17. doi: 10.1038/s41390-022-02415-y. Online ahead of print.


Background: Although investigations have begun to differentiate biological and neurobiological responses to a variety of adversities, studies considering both endocrine and immune function in the same datasets are limited.

Methods: Associations between proximal (family functioning, caregiver depression, and anxiety) and distal (SES-D; socioeconomic disadvantage) early-life adversities with salivary inflammatory biomarkers (IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, and TNF-α) and hair HPA markers (cortisol, cortisone, and dehydroepiandrosterone) were examined in two samples of young U.S. children (N = 142; N = 145).

Results: Children exposed to higher SES-D had higher levels of TNF-α (B = 0.13, p = 0.011), IL-1β (B = 0.10, p = 0.033), and DHEA (B = 0.16, p = 0.011). Higher family dysfunction was associated with higher cortisol (B = 0.08, p = 0.033) and cortisone (B = 0.05, p = 0.003). An interaction between SES-D and family dysfunction was observed for cortisol levels (p = 0.020) whereby children exposed to lower/average levels of SES-D exhibited a positive association between family dysfunction and cortisol levels, whereas children exposed to high levels of SES-D did not. These findings were partially replicated in the second sample.

Conclusions: Our results indicate that these biological response systems may react differently to different forms of early-life adversity.

Impact: Different forms of early-life adversity have varied stress signatures, and investigations of early-life adversities with inflammation and HPA markers are lacking. Children with higher socioeconomic disadvantage had higher TNF-α, IL-1β, and DHEA. Higher family dysfunction was associated with higher hair cortisol and cortisone levels, and the association between family dysfunction and cortisol was moderated by socioeconomic disadvantage. Biological response systems (immune and endocrine) were differentially associated with distinct forms of early-life adversities.