The role of early adverse experience and adulthood stress in the prediction of neuroendocrine stress reactivity in women: A multiple regression analysis

Christine Heim, D. Jeffrey Newport, Dieter Wagner, Molly M. Wilcox, Andrew H. Miller, Charles B. Nemeroff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

327 Scopus citations


Sensitization of stress-responsive neurobiological systems as a possible consequence of early adverse experience has been implicated in the pathophysiology of mood and anxiety disorders. In addition to early adversities, adulthood stressors are also known to precipitate the manifestation of these disorders. The present study sought to evaluate the relative role of early adverse experience vs. stress experiences in adulthood in the prediction of neuroendocrine stress reactivity in women. A total of 49 women (normal volunteers, depressed patients, and women with a history of early abuse) underwent a battery of interviews and completed dimensional rating scales on stress experiences and psychopathology, and were subsequently exposed to a standardized psychosocial laboratory stressor. Outcome measures were plasma adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) and cortisol responses to the stress test. Multiple linear regression analyses were performed to identify the impact of demographic variables, childhood abuse, adulthood trauma, major life events in the past year, and daily hassles in the past month, as well as psychopathology on hormonal stress responsiveness. Peak ACTH responses to psychosocial stress were predicted by a history of childhood abuse, the number of separate abuse events, the number of adulthood traumas, and the severity of depression. Similar predictors were identified for peak cortisol responses. Although abused women reported more severe negative life events in adulthood than controls, life events did not affect neuroendocrine reactivity. The regression model explained 35% of the variance of ACTH responses. The interaction of childhood abuse and adulthood trauma was the most powerful predictor of ACTH responsiveness. Our findings suggest that a history of childhood abuse per se is related to increased neuroendocrine stress reactivity, which is further enhanced when additional trauma is experienced in adulthood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)117-125
Number of pages9
JournalDepression and anxiety
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Chronic stress
  • Corticotropin-releasing factor
  • Depression
  • Development
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Psychology(all)
  • Clinical Psychology


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