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The development of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis in rhesus monkeys: Effects of age, sex, and early experience

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  • Conflicts of interest: nothing to declare.

Abstract

We investigated the development of the HPA axis in group-living rhesus monkeys. Forty-three infants were studied from birth through their third year of life; 22 infants were physically abused by their mothers, while 21 infants were not abused. Plasma cortisol levels in basal conditions and in response to a novel environment test were assessed at 6-month intervals. Both basal and stress cortisol increased steadily from 6 to 24 months of age and then dropped. Across all ages, stress cortisol levels were significantly higher than the basal levels. The cortisol responses to stress at 30 and 36 months of age were significantly lower than the responses at all other ages. At most ages there was an inverse relationship between basal and stress cortisol levels. Individual differences in basal cortisol levels were generally stable in the first 2 years and more variable in the third year while the opposite for true for cortisol responses to stress. At the end of the first year, but not later in life, abused infants had higher cortisol levels than controls across the basal and stress conditions. Rates of social interactions with the mother and other group members were positively correlated with basal cortisol levels early in life, and with cortisol responses to stress later in life. Altogether, these results indicate that there are strong individual differences in HPA function, that there is a relationship between basal activity and stress reactivity, and that early abuse has the short-term effect of increasing both basal activity and stress reactivity. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Dev Psychobiol 56: 86–95, 2014.

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