Cicchetti, D. et al. (2010)
The Differential Impacts of Early Physical and Sexual Abuse and Internalizing Problems on Daytime Cortisol Rhythm in School-Aged Children
Child Development 81(1): 252-269

  • People who suffered maltreatment as children are known to be at higher risk of developing serious depression and similar problems.
  • Studies in animal models have linked poor care in early life with fearful and anxious behaviour, and shown that this arises through changes to the way in which hormones, particularly cortisol, are secreted during the normal stress response.
  • The researchers studied cortisol levels and symptoms of depression in a group of children who had suffered maltreatment, distinguishing between four types of maltreatment: neglect, emotional maltreatment, and physical and sexual abuse. These children were compared to children from similar backgrounds who had not suffered maltreatment.
  • All maltreated children showed more symptoms of depression than those who had not been maltreated, but the effect was significantly larger in a small group of children who had experienced physical and/or sexual abuse before the age of five.
  • In normal children, cortisol secretion is highest soon after waking and decreases through the day. In this study, significant differences to this pattern were observed only in children who had suffered from early physical or sexual abuse and who also suffered from depression.
  • The researchers noted that it would be interesting to follow up this last group of children to see whether they will be at greater risk than others of developing depression as adults.