Determine the association between prenatal cocaine exposure and postnatal environmental adversity on salivary cortisol stress reactivity in school aged children.
Subjects included 743 11 year old children (n=320 cocaine exposed; 423 comparison) followed since birth in a longitudinal prospective multisite study. Saliva samples were collected to measure cortisol at baseline and after a standardized procedure to induce psychological stress. Children were divided into those who showed an increase in cortisol from baseline to post stress and those who showed a decrease or blunted cortisol response. Covariates measured included site, birthweight, maternal pre and postnatal use of alcohol, tobacco or marijuana, social class, changes in caretakers, maternal depression and psychological symptoms, domestic and community violence, child abuse and quality of the home.
With adjustment for confounding variables, cortisol reactivity to stress was more likely to be blunted in children with prenatal cocaine exposure. Cocaine exposed children exposed to domestic violence showed the strongest effects.
The combination of prenatal cocaine exposure and an adverse postnatal environment could down regulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) resulting in the blunted cortisol response to stress possibly increasing risk for later psychopathology and adult disease.