Parental history of depression or anxiety and the cortisol awakening response

S.A. Vreeburg, C.A. Hartman, W.J.G. Hoogendijk, R. van Dyck, F.G. Zitman, J. Ormel, B.W.J.H. Penninx

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Background: It is unclear whether altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis regulation, which frequently accompanies depression and anxiety disorders, represents a trait rather than a state factor. Aims: To examine whether HPA axis dysregulation represents a biological vulnerability for these disorders, we compared cortisol levels in unaffected people with and without a parental history of depressive or anxiety disorders. We additionally examined whether possible HPA axis dysregulations resemble those observed in participants with depression or anxiety disorders. Method: Data were from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. Within the participants without a lifetime diagnoses of depression or anxiety disorders, three groups were distinguished: 180 people without parental history, 114 with self-reported parental history and 74 with CIDI-diagnosed parental history. These groups were additionally compared with people with major depressive disorder or panic disorder with agoraphobia (n = 1262). Salivary cortisol samples were obtained upon awakening, and 30, 45 and 60 min later. Results: As compared with unaffected participants without parental history, unaffected individuals with diagnosed parental history of depression or anxiety showed a significantly higher cortisol awakening curve (effect size (d) = 0.50), which was similar to that observed in the participants with depression or anxiety disorders. Unaffected people with self-reported parental history did not differ in awakening cortisol levels from unaffected people without parental history. Conclusions: Unaffected individuals with parental history of depression or anxiety showed a higher cortisol awakening curve, similar to that of the participants with depression or anxiety disorders. This suggests that a higher cortisol awakening curve reflects a trait marker, indicating an underlying biological vulnerability for the development of depressive and anxiety disorders.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)180-185
JournalBritish journal of psychiatry
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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