Pubertal recalibration of cortisol-DHEA coupling in previously-institutionalized children

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As a period of heightened plasticity, puberty may provide a window of opportunity for recalibration of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to current conditions. Our group has recently documented evidence for pubertal recalibration of HPA axis reactivity among children internationally adopted as infants from institutions into supportive, well-resourced homes. As a first step at examining potential mechanisms by which puberty may facilitate recalibration of the HPA axis, the current study assessed whether previously-institutionalized (PI) children differed from non-adopted (NA) comparison children in levels of the adrenal steroid hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and in its intra-individual covariation (coupling) with cortisol by adrenal pubertal stage. In an accelerated longitudinal design, 7- to 15-year-olds completed up to 3 annual assessments, which included nurse-conducted pubertal staging and the Modified Trier Social Stress Test for Children (TSST-M). Adrenal (pubic hair) rather than gonadal pubertal stage scores were used in the analysis. Paired salivary cortisol-DHEA samples were available at 60–80 min post-TSST-M. NA and PI children did not differ in DHEA levels, which were higher among children at more advanced pubertal stages (averaged across the sessions) for both groups. For NA children, post-stressor cortisol and DHEA were positively coupled across sessions at all average adrenal pubertal stages. For PI children who were, on average, at earlier adrenal pubertal stages, post-stressor cortisol and DHEA were not coupled, but PI children who were at later pubertal stages demonstrated positive cortisol-DHEA coupling similar to that of the NA children. We suggest that these findings provide insights into processes which may underlie pubertal recalibration of the HPA axis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104816
JournalHormones and Behavior
StatePublished - Sep 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development ( R01 HD075349 to MRG) and the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship to MAH). We would like to express our gratitude to the families who make our research possible, the Minnesota International Adoption Project, and the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota. We also thank Tori Simenec, Bao Moua, Lea Neumann, and Heather Taylor, and Dr. Chris Desjardins for their assistance with the study; our nurses Janet Goodwalt, Terri Jones, and Melissa Stoll for Tanner staging; and Dr. Lorah Dorn for providing training in pubertal assessment.


  • Cortisol
  • DHEA
  • Early life stress
  • HPA axis
  • Puberty
  • Recalibration


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