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Biol Psychiatry. 2008 Jun 15;63(12):1147-54. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2008.01.011. Epub 2008 Mar 12.

Childhood parental loss and adult hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal function.

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Mood Disorders Research Program, Laboratory for Clinical Neuroscience, Butler Hospital, Providence, Rhode Island 02906, USA.



Several decades of research link childhood parental loss with risk for major depression and other forms of psychopathology. A large body of preclinical work on maternal separation and some recent studies of humans with childhood parental loss have demonstrated alterations of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function that could predispose to the development of psychiatric disorders.


Eighty-eight healthy adults with no current Axis I psychiatric disorder participated in this study. Forty-four participants experienced parental loss during childhood, including 19 with a history of parental death and 25 with a history of prolonged parental separation. The loss group was compared with a matched group of individuals who reported no history of childhood parental separation or childhood maltreatment. Participants completed diagnostic interviews and questionnaires and the dexamethasone/corticotropin-releasing hormone (Dex/CRH) test. Repeated measures general linear models were used to test the effects of parental loss, parental care, gender, and age on the hormone responses to the Dex/CRH test.


Parental loss was associated with increased cortisol responses to the test, particularly in men. The effect of loss was moderated by levels of parental care; participants with parental desertion and very low levels of care had attenuated cortisol responses. Adrenocorticotropic hormone responses to the Dex/CRH test did not differ significantly as a function of parental loss.


These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that early parental loss induces enduring changes in neuroendocrine function.

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