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BACKGROUND: Differences in cortisol secretion may differentiate individuals at high compared to low genetic risk for bipolar disorder (BD) and predict the onset or recurrence of mood episodes. The objectives of this study were to determine if salivary cortisol measures are: (1) different in high-risk offspring of parents with BD (HR) compared to control offspring of unaffected parents (C), (2) stable over time, (3) associated with the development of mood episode onset/recurrence, and (4) influenced by comorbid complications. METHODS: Fifty-three HR and 22 C completed salivary cortisol sampling annually for up to 4 years in conjunction with semi-structured clinical interviews. The cortisol awakening response (CAR), daytime cortisol [area under the curve (AUC)], and evening cortisol (8:00 p.m.) were calculated. RESULTS: There were no differences in baseline CAR, AUC and evening cortisol between HR and C (p = 0.38, p = 0.30 and p = 0.84), respectively. CAR, AUC and evening cortisol were stable over yearly assessments in HR, while in Cs, evening cortisol increased over time (p = 0.008), and CAR and AUC remained stable. In HR, AUC and evening cortisol increased the hazard of a new onset mood disorder/recurrence by 2.7 times (p = 0.01), and 3.5 times (p = 0.01), respectively, but this was no longer significant after accounting for multiple comparisons. CONCLUSIONS: Salivary cortisol is stable over time within HR offspring. However, between individuals, basal salivary cortisol is highly variable. More research is needed, with larger samples of prospectively studied HR youth using a more reliable method of cortisol measurement, to determine the potential role of cortisol in the development of mood disorders.

Original publication




Journal article


Int J Bipolar Disord

Publication Date





Bipolar disorder, Cortisol, High-risk offspring, Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, Mood disorders, Pathophysiology