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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009 Oct;34(9):1272-83. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2009.03.016. Epub 2009 May 5.

Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation in depressed children and adolescents: a meta-analysis.

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University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, Pittsburgh, United States of America.


Research findings on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and pediatric depression reflect a variety of methodological approaches that tap different facets of HPA-axis functions. Partly owing to the methodological heterogeneity of studies, descriptive reviews of this area have produced inconsistent conclusions. Therefore, we conducted formal meta-analyses of pertinent studies in order to advance our understanding of HPA-axis dysregulation in pediatric depression. We examined: (a) 17 published studies of HPA-axis response to the dexamethasone suppression test (DST) in depressed youth (DST; N=926) and (b) 17 studies of basal HPA-axis functioning (N=1332). We also examined descriptively studies that used corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) infusion, and those that used psychological probes of the HPA-axis. The global standardized mean effect size difference in HPA-axis response to the DST between depressed and non-depressed youth was 0.57, z=4.18, p<0.01. The global standardized mean difference effect size in basal HPA-axis functioning was 0.20, z=4.53, p<0.01. Age, sex, timing of sampling, dexamethasone dosage, or type of control group was not a significant source of variability for the DST or basal studies. In addition, when compared to non-depressed peers, depressed youth have a normative response to CRH infusion but an overactive response to psychological stressors. In conclusion, the HPA-axis system tends to be dysregulated in depressed youth, as evidenced by atypical responses to the DST, higher baseline cortisol values, and an overactive response to psychological stressors. This pattern of dysregulation suggests anomalies within the axis's negative feedback system and CRH production, but intact pituitary and adrenal sensitivity.

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