Background: In individuals at clinical high-risk for psychosis, elevated cortisol levels predict subsequent onset of psychotic disorder. However, it is unclear whether cortisol alterations are evident at an earlier clinical stage and promote progression of psychosis expression. This study aimed to address this issue by investigating whether cortisol levels in childhood were associated with the emergence of attenuated psychotic symptoms in early adulthood. In exploratory analyses, we examined whether cortisol and psychosocial stress measures interacted in predicting attenuated psychotic symptoms. Methods: A sample of children (N = 109) enriched for psychosis risk factors were recruited at age 9–12 years and assessed at age 11–14 years (T1) and 17–21 years (T2). Measures of psychopathology, psychosocial stressors, and salivary cortisol were obtained at T1. Attenuated psychotic symptoms were assessed at T2 using the Prodromal Questionnaire. Results: Diurnal cortisol (β = 0.915, 95% confidence interval: 0.062–1.769) and daily stressors (β = 0.379, 95% confidence interval: 0.034–0.723) at T1 were independently associated with total Prodromal Questionnaire scores at T2 after accounting for demographic factors and T1 psychopathology. Exploratory analyses indicated a significant interaction between T1 diurnal cortisol and daily stressors (β = 0.743, 95% confidence interval: 0.081–1.405), with the highest predicted T2 total Prodromal Questionnaire scores occurring when both diurnal cortisol and daily stressors were increased. Conclusions: Our findings suggest that daily stressors and elevations in diurnal cortisol in late childhood/early adolescence increases risk for developing attenuated psychotic symptoms. These findings emphasize the importance of assessing environmental and biological risk factors for psychosis during neurodevelopmentally vulnerable time periods.
- HPA axis
- salivary cortisol