Stressful life events affect hormone levels in children undergoing puberty

Joyce Chen ’23

Figure 1: Neuroendocrine coupling patterns can be influenced by stressful events that occur early during a child’s life. 

Puberty is a physiological developmental process that every child undergoes during their preteen years. It occurs through the production of a wide variety of hormones within the body. Specifically, the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis and the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) are involved in initiating an upregulation of hormonal changes, leading to the secretion of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen. Recent research indicates that neural reactions to stress factors such as abuse or neglect can have significant effects on hormonal changes during puberty, drawing a connection between the nervous and endocrine systems. To gain more insight into neuroendocrine coupling, or how hormone levels vary across time, Stony Brook University professor and researcher Dr. Matthew Lerner and his research team arranged a study that consisted of 405 adrenarcheal children.  

For this longitudinal study, the researchers collected saliva samples from each child in order to measure individual levels of stress. The samples were analyzed for specific hormone levels, particularly of cortisol, DHEA, and testosterone. Furthermore, stressful and negative life events were recorded when the children were at ages 3, 6, and 9 via the Preschool Age Psychiatric Assessment (PAPA) and the Kiddie Schedule for Affective Disorders (K-SADS-PL) interviews. Some examples of these life events include parental neglect, financial problems, moving, abuse and domestic violence, and natural disasters. The results showed that cortisol-testosterone coupling occurred at greater magnitudes in children exposed to high-stress life events. In addition, children with higher stress levels had more adult-like neuroendocrine coupling patterns than children with lower stress levels. The study indicated that stressful life events for 9-year-old girls greatly influenced their cortisol-testosterone coupling patterns. However, this finding was not observed in boys. The team suspected that this may be due to the differences in androgen receptors within the brain amongst the two sexes. 

Dr. Lerner and his research team’s study highlights the importance of early interventions in combating developing mental illnesses in children. The results help provide further insight into the differences in hormone levels across children. Future research studies will look deeper into the consequences of neuroendocrine coupling in both children and adults. 

Works Cited:

[1] S.R. Black, et. al., Patterns of neuroendocrine coupling in 9-year-old children: Effects of sex, body-mass index, and life stress. Biological Psychology 132, 252–259 (2018). Doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2017.11.004

[2] Image retrieved from: https://images.pexels.com/photos/6034063/pexels-photo-6034063.jpeg?auto=compress&cs=tinysrgb&dpr=2&h=750&w=1260

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