The association between basal cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), its sulphate (DHEAS) and major depression was investigated in 8- to 16-year-olds. Eighty-two subjects with major depression, 25 non-depressed psychiatric cases and 40 community controls were systematically assessed for current mental state and hormone levels at 08.00, 12.00 and 20.00 h, assayed from salivary samples collected over a 48 h period. The average mean of the two time points was compared between the three groups. Evening cortisol hypersecretion and morning DHEA hyposecretion were significantly, and independently, associated with major depression. High evening cortisol (> 0·594 ng/ml) and low morning DHEA (< 0·200 ng/ml) identified subgroups of depressives with different types of adrenal hormone dysregulation. The association between high evening cortisol or low morning DHEA and MDD was not affected by either age or gender.