ADHD and stress Diurnal cortisol levels, early psychosocial adversity and perceived stress
Sammanfattning: The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis (HPA-axis) with its end product cortisol mediates the physiological response to stress thereby promoting mobilization of energy. The cortisol levels follow a diurnal rhythm with a distinct awakening response. Regulation of the HPA-axis differs among persons with certain psychiatric disorders when compared with controls. Some reports concern Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but findings are inconclusive. The main aim of the present thesis was to investigate diurnal levels of saliva cortisol in school aged children with ADHD and age matched non-affected comparisons, also taking early adversity, perceived stress and ADHD-medication into consideration.Children with ADHD had lower cortisol levels at awakening, 30 minutes later and before going to bed than comparisons. When the study group was split into three different age groups similar results were found only for children above 10 years of age. Within the ADHD group, subtype of ADHD or co-occurring symptoms did not affect the cortisol levels. Furthermore, children in the ADHD group had to a higher degree been exposed to foetal and childhood psychosocial adversity than comparisons.Since exposure to early adversity has been associated with both ADHD and HPA-axis functioning, such exposures could theoretically explain the low cortisol levels in ADHD via early programming of the HPA-axis. However, no relation was found between exposures to psychosocial adversity and diurnal cortisol levels. Neither did continuous medication with stimulants or atomoxetine explain the low cortisol levels. Possibly, medication may rather increase the levels.Finally, children with ADHD scored higher on perceived stress, measured by the Pressure-Activation-Stress (PAS) scale, than the comparison group. Female sex was also associated with higher stress in both groups, as well as increasing age in the comparison group. As with psychosocial adversity, no association was found between the higher PAS-scores and the lower cortisol levels, indicating the complexity of the stress regulating system.The results indicate a down-regulated or displaced HPA-axis with lower cortisol levels in children with ADHD. Stress related fragility – with more exposure to early stressors, higher perceived stress and lower diurnal cortisol levels – seem to accompany ADHD during childhood.
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