Institutional care, particularly when experienced early in life, is associated with delays in social and emotional development that often persist years after adoption. It has been hypothesized that compromise of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis due to adverse condition in institutions is a mediator of later emotional and behavioral problems. The first goal of our project was to investigate whether improvements in the social and emotional environment are associated with changes in HPA axis function. The second goal was to explore whether HPA alterations related to early social adversity were associated with more compromised general development and social and emotional functioning post adoption. Children adopted from Eastern European orphanages (N=76, mean age was 17 months, SD = 5) were followed as part of an ongoing longitudinal study. Data, including diurnal cortisol patterns, were collected at two time points: baseline (within one month of adoption) and follow-up (six months later). Cortisol values were averaged over two days of saliva sampling after wake-up and before bedtime. We found that morning cortisol values increased between the baseline assessment (M=0.27 μg/dl, SD = 0.13) and follow-up (M=0.33 μg/dl, SD = 0.20), t(76) = -2.1, p<0.05. HPA functioning was not associated with general developmental level at either the initial or six months post-adoption assessments. However, dysregulation of the HPA axis (i.e., flatter diurnal pattern) at follow-up was associated with more behavioral and emotional problems. Overall, these results suggest that investigating specific physiological mechanisms is important in identifying children at risk for persistent social and emotional problems and in understanding the long-term consequences of early adversity. Future work should investigate whether disturbance in the HPA system is a heightened risk for long-term negative developmental outcomes.
- Early experience
- Institutional care
- Social and emotional development
- Stress neurobiology