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Heritability of Cortisol Regulation in Children

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 February 2012

Per A. Gustafsson*
Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Linköping University, Sweden
Per E. Gustafsson
Department of Public Health and Clinical Medicine, Family Medicine, Umeå University, Sweden
Henrik Anckarsäter
Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, Forensic Psychiatry, Gothenburg University, Sweden
Paul Lichtenstein
Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Therese Ljung
Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Nina Nelson
Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Pediatrics, Linköping University, Sweden
Henrik Larsson
Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE: Per A. Gustafsson, Dept of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Linköping University, S-581 95 Linköping, Sweden. E-mail:


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Background: The normal development of cortisol regulation during childhood is thought to be influenced by a complex interplay between environmental and genetic factors. Method: The aim of this study was to estimate genetic and environmental influences on basal cortisol levels in a sample of 151 twin pairs aged 9–16 years. Salivary cortisol was collected on two consecutive days when the children attended school — immediately after awakening, 30 min post-awakening and at bedtime. Results: Heritability was highest (60%) for cortisol levels about 30 min after awakening. For samples taken immediately at awakening heritability was less pronounced (28%) and in the evening low (8%). Conclusion: The limited genetic influence on evening levels, moderate on cortisol at awakening and high on awakening response, might imply two genetic regulation patterns, one specifically for awakening response and one for the circadian rhythm proper. These findings could explain divergent results in previous studies and highlight the importance of taking the circadian rhythm into account in studies of cortisol levels in children.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011


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