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Introduction: Dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis has been implicated in the development of major depressive disorder (MDD) in adulthood. Less work has focused on the role of the HPA axis in depression in adolescence and young adulthood globally. The aim of this study was to conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis of worldwide research investigating the relationship between cortisol, a measure of HPA axis activity, and MDD in adolescence and young adulthood. Method: We searched MEDLINE, PsycINFO, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Web of Science, Lilacs, African Journals Online, and Global Health for studies which examined the relationship between cortisol and MDD in global youth (10–24 years old). Results: Twenty-six studies were included in the systematic review and 14 were eligible for the meta-analysis, but only one study included young adults in their sample. Results from the meta-analysis demonstrated that elevated morning, but not evening, cortisol levels was prospectively associated with later MDD development in adolescence and young adulthood. However, morning cortisol levels did not significantly differ between healthy controls and individuals with MDD in cross-sectional studies. Afternoon cortisol and cortisol stress response also did not differ between adolescents with MDD and healthy controls. Qualitative synthesis of the three studies examining nocturnal cortisol showed higher nocturnal cortisol was both longitudinally and cross-sectionally associated with MDD in adolescence. Conclusion: Our findings suggest elevated morning cortisol precedes depression in adolescence. Despite this, we did not find any differences in other cortisol measures in association with MDD in cross-sectional studies. Taken together, these findings suggest that elevated morning and nocturnal cortisol are risk factors for depression in adolescence rather than a biomarker of existing MDD. This supports a role for the hyperactivity of the HPA axis in the development of MDD in adolescence. Most of the studies were from high-income-countries (HICs) and thus further work would need to be conducted in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to understand if our findings are generalisable also to these populations.

Original languageEnglish
Article number105625
Early online date8 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


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