Published:  2015-07-01

Autonomic and Adrenocortical Interactions Predict Mental Health in Late Adolescence: The TRAILS Study

Authors:  Esther Nederhof, Kristine Marceau, Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff, Paul D. Hastings, Albertine J. Oldehinkel

Tags:  Antisocial behavior, Anxiety, Mental disorders, Prospective study, Psychological problems, Public speaking task, depression

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The present study is informed by the theory of allostatic load to examine how multiple stress responsive biomarkers are related to mental health outcomes. Data are from the TRAILS study, a large prospective population study of 715 Dutch adolescents (50.9 % girls), assessed at 16.3 and 19.1 years. Reactivity measures of the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and autonomic nervous system (ANS) biomarkers (heart rate, HR; respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA; and pre-ejection period, PEP) to a social stress task were used to predict concurrent and longitudinal changes in internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Hierarchical linear modeling revealed relatively few single effects for each biomarker with the exception that high HR reactivity predicted concurrent internalizing problems in boys. More interestingly, interactions were found between HPA-axis reactivity and sympathetic and parasympathetic reactivity. Boys with high HPA reactivity and low RSA reactivity had the largest increases in internalizing problems from 16 to 19 years. Youth with low HPA reactivity along with increased ANS activation characterized by both decreases in RSA and decreases in PEP had the most concurrent externalizing problems, consistent with broad theories of hypo-arousal. Youth with high HPA reactivity along with increases in RSA but decreases in PEP also had elevated concurrent externalizing problems, which increased over time, especially within boys. This profile illustrates the utility of examining the parasympathetic and sympathetic components of the ANS which can act in opposition to one another to achieve, overall, stress responsivity. The framework of allostasis and allostatic load is supported in that examination of multiple biomarkers working together in concert was of value in understanding mental health problems concurrently and longitudinally. Findings argue against an additive panel of risk and instead illustrate the dynamic interplay of stress physiology systems.