Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 43, Issue 5, pp 847–861 | Cite as

Autonomic and Adrenocortical Interactions Predict Mental Health in Late Adolescence: The TRAILS Study

  • Esther NederhofEmail author
  • Kristine Marceau
  • Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff
  • Paul D. Hastings
  • Albertine J. Oldehinkel


The present study is informed by the theory of allostatic load to examine how multiple stress responsive biomarkers are related to mental health outcomes. Data are from the TRAILS study, a large prospective population study of 715 Dutch adolescents (50.9 % girls), assessed at 16.3 and 19.1 years. Reactivity measures of the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and autonomic nervous system (ANS) biomarkers (heart rate, HR; respiratory sinus arrhythmia, RSA; and pre-ejection period, PEP) to a social stress task were used to predict concurrent and longitudinal changes in internalizing and externalizing symptoms. Hierarchical linear modeling revealed relatively few single effects for each biomarker with the exception that high HR reactivity predicted concurrent internalizing problems in boys. More interestingly, interactions were found between HPA-axis reactivity and sympathetic and parasympathetic reactivity. Boys with high HPA reactivity and low RSA reactivity had the largest increases in internalizing problems from 16 to 19 years. Youth with low HPA reactivity along with increased ANS activation characterized by both decreases in RSA and decreases in PEP had the most concurrent externalizing problems, consistent with broad theories of hypo-arousal. Youth with high HPA reactivity along with increases in RSA but decreases in PEP also had elevated concurrent externalizing problems, which increased over time, especially within boys. This profile illustrates the utility of examining the parasympathetic and sympathetic components of the ANS which can act in opposition to one another to achieve, overall, stress responsivity. The framework of allostasis and allostatic load is supported in that examination of multiple biomarkers working together in concert was of value in understanding mental health problems concurrently and longitudinally. Findings argue against an additive panel of risk and instead illustrate the dynamic interplay of stress physiology systems.


Public speaking task Mental disorders depression Anxiety Antisocial behavior Psychological problems Prospective study 



This research is part of the TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS). Participating centers of TRAILS include various departments of the University Medical Center and University of Groningen, the Erasmus University Medical Center Rotterdam, the University of Utrecht, the Radboud Medical Center Nijmegen, and the Parnassia Bavo group, all in the Netherlands. TRAILS has been financially supported by various grants from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research NWO (Medical Research Council program grant GB-MW 940-38-011; ZonMW Brainpower grant 100-001-004; ZonMw Risk Behavior and Dependence grants 60-60600-97-118; ZonMw Culture and Health grant 261-98-710; Social Sciences Council medium-sized investment grants GB-MaGW 480-01-006 and GB-MaGW 480-07-001; Social Sciences Council project grants GB-MaGW 452-04-314 and GB-MaGW 452-06-004; NWO large-sized investment grant 175.010.2003.005; NWO Longitudinal Survey and Panel Funding 481-08-013), the Dutch Ministry of Justice (WODC), the European Science Foundation (EuroSTRESS project FP-006), Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Research Infrastructure BBMRI-NL (CP 32), the participating universities, and Accare Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. We are grateful to all adolescents, their parents and teachers who participated in this research and to everyone who worked on this project and made it possible.

Conflicts of Interest

None of the authors report any conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Esther Nederhof
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kristine Marceau
    • 2
    • 3
  • Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff
    • 4
  • Paul D. Hastings
    • 5
  • Albertine J. Oldehinkel
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Groningen, University Medical Center GroningenInterdisciplinary Center Psychopathology and Emotion RegulationGroningenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies, Department of Behavioral & Social SciencesBrown University School of Public HealthProvidenceUSA
  3. 3.Division of Behavior Genetics, Department of PsychiatryRhode Island HospitalProvidenceUSA
  4. 4.Department of Human Development and Family StudiesIowa State UniversityAmesUSA
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyUniversity of California DavisDavisUSA

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