Puberty and stress reactivity in humans

Puberty and stress reactivity in humans

Humans exposed to adversity in infancy show a blunted response of the stress hormone cortisol. Researchers report that puberty may open a window of opportunity for the recalibration of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenocortical (HPA) axis, a hormonal system that controls stress responses.

Two hundred ninety-nine youths, aged 7–15 years at the start of the study, participated in 3 sessions across consecutive years. Of the participants, 129 individuals were previously institutionalized as infants or toddlers before being adopted into generally supportive, well-resourced homes, whereas 170 individuals were born and raised in their natal families.

Using saliva samples, the authors measured cortisol reactivity to social evaluative stress as the participants engaged in public speaking and mental arithmetic while being evaluated by judges.

At the individual level, cortisol reactivity in postinstitutionalized participants rose with increasing pubertal stage, becoming more similar to that of nonadopted individuals. By contrast, cortisol reactivity did not rise significantly with increasing pubertal stage in nonadopted participants.

According to the authors, the findings suggest that interventions to improve the supportiveness of caregiving environments during puberty may have a strong impact on HPA axis function.