Childhood trauma and HPA axis functionality in offspring of bipolar parents

Merel M Schreuder, Christiaan H Vinkers, Esther Mesman, Stephan Claes, Willem A Nolen, Manon H J Hillegers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Children of a parent with bipolar disorder (bipolar offspring) have an increased risk for mood disorders. While genetic factors play a significant role in this population, susceptibility to environmental stress may also significantly contribute to this vulnerability for mood disorders. Childhood trauma has consistently been found to increase the risk for mood disorders, with persisting consequences for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis functionality. However, it is currently unknown whether childhood trauma specifically affects HPA axis activity in individuals with a familial risk for bipolar disorder. Therefore, we investigated the effects of childhood trauma on daytime and evening cortisol levels and dexamethasone suppression in bipolar offspring (N=70) and healthy controls (N=44). In our study we found no significant differences in daytime and evening cortisol levels as well as dexamethasone suppression between bipolar offspring and healthy controls (all p-values>0.43). In contrast, childhood trauma differentially affected daytime cortisol levels in the bipolar offspring compared to healthy controls (childhood trauma X bipolar offspring interaction, β=-7.310, p=0.0414) with an effect of childhood trauma on daytime cortisol in bipolar offspring at trend level (p=0.058). In the bipolar offspring group, lifetime or current psychiatric diagnoses, and stressful life events separately did not affect cortisol levels or dexamethasone suppression (all p-values>p=0.50). These findings were independent of current or lifetime psychiatric diagnosis. In conclusion, trauma-related changes in daytime HPA axis activity appear to be a specific trait in bipolar offspring who have increased risk for mood disorders compared to healthy individuals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)316-323
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2016
Externally publishedYes

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