Parental Depression Tied to Higher Basal Salivary Cortisol in Offspring

biological speciman
biological speciman
Current parental depression may be associated with higher basal salivary cortisol and blunted cortisol awakening responses in childhood.

Children with a current parental history of depression are more likely to have higher cortisol levels than children with parents who are not currently affected by depression, according to study findings published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

In this substudy of ongoing research of insomnia and mental disorders, investigators conducted structured clinical interviews using the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV Axis I Psychiatric Disorder tool in 189 child and adolescent offspring participants, dividing this sample into children with parents with current depression (CPD, n=27), past parental depression (PPD, n=57), and no parental depression (NPD, n=105).

The investigators then collected diurnal saliva samples to measure cortisol awakening response as well as overall cortisol levels during the day. Samples were collected on awakening (0 min, T1), 30 minutes (T2), 60 minutes (T3), and 90 minutes (T4) after awakening, at noon (T5), at 4:00 pm (T6), and at 10:00 pm (T7) during weekends or holidays.

Among the sample, a greater proportion of children in the CPD group took medications compared to those in the PPD and NPD groups (22.2% vs 3.5% and 6.7%, respectively; P =.01). Although children with in the CPD group had higher basal cortisol levels in the morning (P =.008), these participants had lower cortisol levels at noon compared with those in the PPD and NPD groups (P =.001).

Children and adolescents in the CPD group had significantly greater basal cortisol levels (mean ± SE = 11.9 ± 0.80 nmol/dL) vs those in the PPD (mean ± SE = 9.7 ± 0.73 nmol/dL, post hoc P =.024) and NPD groups (mean ± SE = 10.2 ± 0.52 nmol/dL, post hoc P =.031). In addition, those in the CPD group had a significantly higher blunted cortisol awakening response than those in the PPD and NPD arms (post hoc P <.01).

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Because only single-day salivary samples were collected, the investigators were unable to determine the precise variation in salivary cortisol that occurs among CPD, PPD, and NPD children. Additionally, the sample size was small for CPD, which may further limit the wide-scale generalizability of the findings.

The findings suggest that CPD may be associated with higher basal salivary cortisol and blunted cortisol awakening responses in childhood.   


Zhang J, Lam SP, Li SX, et al. Parental history of depression and higher basal salivary cortisol in unaffected child and adolescent offspring. J Affect Disord. 2018;234:207-213.