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J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2013 May;74(3):447-51.

Cortisol reactivity in two-year-old children prenatally exposed to methamphetamine.

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Department of Psychology, The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA.



Until now, the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in children with prenatal methamphetamine exposure (PME) had been unexamined. Previous research indicates that prenatal exposure to stimulant drugs is associated with dose-response alterations in neural growth and connectivity and consequent neurobehavioral deficits. In addition, children of drug-using parents are at an increased risk for exposure to chronic postnatal stress. In this preliminary study, we examined the associations of PME and postnatal environmental stress with cortisol stress reactivity in children with PME.


Participants were 2-year-old children (N = 123; 55.3% male) with PME from a multicenter longitudinal Infant, Development, Environment, and Lifestyle Study. Saliva samples were obtained before and after a stress-inducing separation task. Hierarchical multiple regression analyses examined prenatal drug exposure, methodological and postnatal stress covariates, and interactions between levels of PME and postnatal stress.


Mild to moderate potential for child physical abuse moderated increased cortisol reactivity in high exposed children with PME. Blunted cortisol reactivity was associated with caregiver's postnatal alcohol use, child's behavioral dysregulation, and the interaction between higher levels of PME and caregiver's psychopathology.


Consistent with the known effects of stimulant drugs and chronically stressful environments on the HPA axis and, thus, the toxic stress and allostatic load phenomena, our results imply that elevated PME may be associated with alterations in the programming of the HPA axis reflecting hyperactivity, which under significant and chronic environmental stress then may become hypoactive.

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