Salivary Cortisol and Psychopathology in Children Bereaved by the September 11, 2001 Terror Attacks

Cynthia R. Pfeffer, Margaret Altemus, Moonseong Heo, Hong Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

102 Scopus citations


Background: Studies suggest that stressful events increase risk for childhood anxiety and depression and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysregulation. This prospective longitudinal study evaluated relationships among severe psychosocial stress, psychiatric morbidity, and HPA axis function in children. Methods: Forty-five children (mean age: 8.9 ± 2.9 years) suffering parent death from September 11, 2001 terror attacks and 34 nonbereaved children (mean age: 9.3 ± 2.5 years) were evaluated prospectively at 6-month intervals in this 2-year study. Assessments involved diagnostic interviews (Child Schedule for Affective Disorders and Schizophrenia [K-SADS]) for psychopathology and 3 days of baseline salivary cortisol and a salivary dexamethasone suppression test for HPA axis function. Results: Bereaved children, but not nonbereaved children, had significantly increased rates of psychiatric disorders involving anxiety disorders, especially posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after September 11, 2001 compared with retrospective assessments before September 11, 2001. Morning (AM) and 4:00 pm baseline cortisol were significantly and persistently higher for bereaved than nonbereaved children. Compared with bereaved children without psychopathology, bereaved children with PTSD had significantly lower 4:00 pm baseline cortisol and significantly greater 4:00 pm cortisol suppression. Children with generalized anxiety disorder had significantly less AM cortisol suppression than children without psychopathology. Conclusions: Children bereaved by sudden, unexpected parent death had persistent psychological dysfunction and HPA axis dysregulation in this study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)957-965
Number of pages9
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 15 2007


  • Bereavement
  • HPA axis
  • children
  • cortisol
  • psychopathology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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