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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Aug;38(8):1318-27. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.11.017. Epub 2012 Dec 17.

Neurocognitive function and state cognitive stress appraisal predict cortisol reactivity to an acute psychosocial stressor in adolescents.

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Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA.


Stress and associated alterations in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) function have deleterious influence on the development of multiple mental and physical health problems. Prior research has aimed to identify individuals most at risk for the development of these stress-related maladies by examining factors that may contribute to inter-individual differences in HPA responses to acute stress. The objectives of this study were to investigate, in adolescents, (1) whether differences in neurocognitive abilities influenced cortisol reactivity to an acute stressor, (2) whether internalizing psychiatric disorders influenced this relationship, and (3) whether acute cognitive stress-appraisal mechanisms mediated an association between neurocognitive function and cortisol reactivity. Subjects were 70 adolescents from a community sample who underwent standardized neurocognitive assessments of IQ, achievement, and declarative memory measures at mean age 14 and whose physiological and behavioral responses to a standardized psychosocial stress paradigm (Trier Social Stress Test, TSST) were assessed at mean age 18. Results showed that, among all adolescents, lower nonverbal memory performance predicted lower cortisol reactivity. In addition, internalizing disorders interacted with verbal memory such that the association with cortisol reactivity was strongest for adolescents with internalizing disorders. Finally, lower secondary cognitive appraisal of coping in anticipation of the TSST independently predicted lower cortisol reactivity but did not mediate the neurocognitive-cortisol relationship. Findings suggest that declarative memory may contribute to inter-individual differences in acute cortisol reactivity in adolescents, internalizing disorders may influence this relationship, and cognitive stress appraisal also predicts cortisol reactivity. Developmental, research, and clinical implications are discussed.

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