Elevated cortisol awakening response associated with early life stress and impaired executive function in healthy adult males

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Experiencing early life stress (ELS) and subsequent dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis may play a role in the aetiology of mental health disorders. However, the exact mechanisms linking HPA-axis dysregulation with the development of psychopathology have not been fully delineated. Progress in this area is hampered by the complex and often conflicting associations found between markers of HPA-axis function and risk factors for mental health disorders such as impaired executive function (EF) and ELS. This study investigated the association of the cortisol awakening response (CAR) with ELS and EF in a healthy adult male population (n = 109, aged 21–63). As previous inconsistencies in CAR and ELS association studies may be the result of not considering ELS-related factors such as cumulative exposure, type of stressor and developmental timing of ELS, these were also investigated. The main findings were that the CAR was significantly elevated in individuals reporting ELS compared to those reporting no ELS (p = 0.007) and that an elevated CAR predicted poorer problem solving/planning (p = 0.046). Cumulative exposure, type of stressor and developmental timing of ELS were also found to impact significantly on the CAR. These results suggest that ELS is associated with chronic changes in HPA-axis function and that these changes may be associated with impairments in problem solving/planning. Future work should investigate further the neurobiological mechanisms linking ELS, the CAR and EF and their role in conferring risk for the development of mental health disorders.

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