The developmental trajectory of diurnal cortisol in autistic and neurotypical youth.

Publication date: Jul 12, 2023

Increasing age and puberty affect the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis maturation, which is likely associated with an increase in environmental demands (e. g., social) and vulnerability for the onset of psychiatric conditions (e. g., depression). There is limited research as to whether such patterns are consonant in youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition marked by social challenges, dysregulation of the HPA axis, and higher rates of depression setting the stage for enhanced vulnerability during this developmental period. The current study interrogated diurnal cortisol by examining (1) cortisol expression longitudinally over the pubertal transition between autistic and neurotypical youth, (2) the trajectory of diurnal cortisol and the unique contributions of age vs. puberty, and (3) potential sex differences. As hypothesized, results indicate autistic compared to typically developing youth demonstrate a shallower diurnal slope and elevated evening cortisol. These differences were in the context of higher cortisol and flatter rhythms based on age and pubertal development. Also, sex-based differences emerged such that females in both groups had higher cortisol, flatter slopes, and higher evening cortisol than males. The results show that despite the trait-like stability of diurnal cortisol, HPA maturation is impacted by age, puberty, sex, as well as an ASD diagnosis.

Concepts Keywords
Autism Autism
Environmental Cortisol
Females Diurnal
Psychopathol Puberty


Type Source Name
drug DRUGBANK Hydrocortisone
disease MESH autism spectrum disorder
disease MESH Autism

Original Article

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