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High cortisol levels in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder during two weeks of daily sampling


  • The authors of this paper do not have any commercial associations that might pose a conflict of interest in connection with this manuscript.

Corresponding author:
Mark A. Ellenbogen, Ph.D.
Centre for Research in Human Development
Concordia University
7141 Sherbrooke Street West
Montréal, Québec H4B 1R6, Canada
Fax: 514-848-2815


Ellenbogen MA, Santo JB, Linnen A-M, Walker C-D, Hodgins S. High cortisol levels in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder during two weeks of daily sampling.
Bipolar Disord 2010: 12: 77–86. © 2010 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2010 John Wiley & Sons A/S.

Objectives:  The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is compromised in major depression, bipolar disorder (BD), and in the offspring of parents with major depression. Less is known about the offspring of parents with BD (FH+). The present project provides follow-up to a previous study showing that the adolescent (mean age 16.7 years) FH+ offspring had higher salivary cortisol levels than the offspring of parents with no mental disorder (FH−) throughout the day in their natural environment, and that girls had higher cortisol levels than boys (Ellenbogen MA, Hodgins S, Walker C-D, Adam S, Couture S. Daytime cortisol and stress reactivity in the offspring of parents with bipolar disorder. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2006; 31: 1164–1180). The goal of the present study was to determine whether FH+ offspring, approximately two years later, continued to exhibit elevated cortisol levels relative to FH− offspring during two weeks of daily sampling.

Methods:  The present study examined salivary cortisol levels in 24 (18.3 ± 2.6 years) FH+ and 22 (18.0 ± 2.3 years) FH− offspring who are part of the same longitudinal cohort as the previous study. Saliva was collected at 1300h and 1500h in the natural environment of the offspring during 14 consecutive days.

Results:  Multilevel modelling analyses indicated that FH+ offspring had higher afternoon levels of cortisol in their natural environment than FH− offspring, but group differences in slope and gender differences were not found.

Conclusions:  The FH+ offspring exhibited increased daytime secretion of cortisol that, at the level of the group, persisted into late adolescence and young adulthood. Perhaps this change in HPA functioning is associated with an increased vulnerability for the development of an affective disorder.