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Testosterone–cortisol dissociation in children exposed to prenatal maternal stress, and relationship with aggression: Project Ice Storm

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2018

Tuong-Vi Nguyen
McGill University Health Centre
Sherri L. Jones
Douglas Mental Health University Institute McGill University
Guillaume Elgbeili
Douglas Mental Health University Institute
Patricia Monnier
McGill University Health Centre
Chunbo Yu
Government of Alberta, Canada
David P. Laplante
Douglas Mental Health University Institute
Suzanne King*
Douglas Mental Health University Institute McGill University
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Suzanne King, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, 6875 LaSalle Blvd., Verdun, QC, Canada H4H 1R3; E-mail:


Prenatal maternal stress (PNMS) has been associated with postnatal behavioral alterations that may be partly explained by interactions between the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) and hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axes. Yet it remains unclear whether PNMS leads to enduring HPA–HPG alterations in the offspring, and whether HPA–HPG interactions can impact behavior during development, in particular levels of aggression in childhood. Here we investigated the relationship between a marker for HPG axis function (baseline testosterone) and a marker for HPA axis response (cortisol area under the curve) in 11½-year-olds whose mothers were exposed to the 1998 Quebec ice storm during pregnancy (n = 59 children; 31 boys, 28 girls). We examined (a) whether the degree of objective or subjective PNMS regulates the testosterone–cortisol relationship at age 11½, and (b) whether this testosterone–cortisol relationship is associated with differences in aggressive behavior. We found that, at lower levels of subjective PNMS, baseline testosterone and cortisol reactivity were positively correlated; in contrast, there was no relationship between these hormones at higher levels of subjective PNMS. Cortisol response moderated the relationship between testosterone and aggression. These results support the notion PNMS may explain variance in fetal HPA–HPG interactions, and that these interactions may be associated with aggressive behavior in late childhood.

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The Montreal General Foundation and the Senator W. David Angus Award for Research in Major Psychiatric Diseases provided a salary award for Tuong-Vi Nguyen. The Integrated Research Network in Perinatology of Quebec and Eastern Ontario provided operating funds for this project. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research provided operating funds for Project Ice Storm (S. King, Principal Investigator). Tuong-Vi Nguyen is a Fonds de Recherche Sante Quebec (FRQS) Clinician Scientist and received funding from MERCK, SHARP and DOHME, the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Center, the Montreal General Hospital and Royal Victoria Hospital Foundations, the Senator W. David Angus Award ,and the Integrated Research Network in Perinatology of Quebec and Eastern Ontario. All other coauthors, as part of Suzanne King's lab, received funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Sherri Lee Jones is funded by a Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded by FRQS.


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