Cortisol and DHEA in development and psychopathology

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Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and cortisol are the most abundant hormones of the human fetal and adult adrenals released as end products of a tightly coordinated endocrine response to stress. Together, they mediate short- and long-term stress responses and enable physiological and behavioral adjustments necessary for maintaining homeostasis. Detrimental effects of chronic or repeated elevations in cortisol on behavioral and emotional health are well documented. Evidence for actions of DHEA that offset or oppose those of cortisol has stimulated interest in examining their levels as a ratio, as an alternate index of adrenocortical activity and the net effects of cortisol. Such research necessitates a thorough understanding of the co-actions of these hormones on physiological functioning and in association with developmental outcomes. This review addresses the state of the science in understanding the role of DHEA, cortisol, and their ratio in typical development and developmental psychopathology. A rationale for studying DHEA and cortisol in concert is supported by physiological data on the coordinated synthesis and release of these hormones in the adrenal and by their opposing physiological actions. We then present evidence that researching cortisol and DHEA necessitates a developmental perspective. Age-related changes in DHEA and cortisol are described from the perinatal period through adolescence, along with observed associations of these hormones with developmental psychopathology. Along the way, we identify several major knowledge gaps in the role of DHEA in modulating cortisol in typical development and developmental psychopathology with implications for future research.

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