Sex differences in morning cortisol in youth at ultra-high-risk for psychosis

Emily E. Carol*, Robert L. Spencer, Vijay A. Mittal

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Research suggests abnormalities in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function play an important role in the pathophysiology of psychosis. However, there is limited research on the biological stress system in young people at ultra high risk (UHR) for psychosis. Morning cortisol levels are particularly relevant to study in this context, as these markers reflect HPA regulation. This is the first examination of sex differences in morning cortisol levels in UHR individuals. Twenty-eight UHR and 22 matched healthy control participants were assessed in respect to symptoms and had home-based collection of salivary cortisol over three time points in the morning. It was predicted that the UHR participants would exhibit lower morning cortisol levels and lower cortisol would be associated with greater symptomatology (i.e. higher positive, negative, and depressive symptoms). Additionally, sex differences in morning cortisol levels were explored based on recent evidence suggesting that sex differences may play an important role in the exacerbation of psychosis. While there were no group differences in morning salivary cortisol secretion, there was a sex by time interaction among UHR individuals, such that only UHR males exhibited flat cortisol levels across two hours after awakening, whereas UHR females had a pattern of cortisol secretion similar to healthy controls, even among medication-free individuals (F = 6.34, p = 0.004). Cortisol AUC (area under the curve) across the three time points had a trend association (medium effect size; r = 0.34, p = 0.08) with depressive, but not positive or negative, symptom severity. These results stress the importance of considering sex differences in the psychosis-risk period, as they improve understanding of pathogenic processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)87-93
Number of pages7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2016


  • Cortisol
  • HPA axis
  • High-risk
  • Prodrome
  • Schizophrenia

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry

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