Several studies have shown that young children who have experienced early caregiving adversity (e.g. previously institutionalization (PI)) exhibit flattened diurnal cortisol slopes; however, less is known about how these patterns might differ between children and adolescents, since the transition between childhood and adolescence is a time of purported plasticity in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. PI youth experience a massive improvement in caregiving environment once adopted into families; therefore we anticipated that a developmental increase in HPA axis plasticity during adolescence might additionally allow for an enhanced enrichment effect by the adoptive family. In a cross-sectional sample of 197 youths (PI and Comparison; 4-15 years old) we observed age-related group differences in diurnal slope. First replicating previous findings, PI children exhibited flattened diurnal slope. This group difference, however, was not observed in adolescents. Moderation analyses showed that pubertal development, increased time with family, and early adoption contributed to the steeper diurnal cortisol slope in PI adolescents. These findings add support to existing theories positing that the transition between middle childhood and adolescence may mark an additional sensitive period for diurnal cortisol patterning, allowing PI youth to benefit from the enriched environment provided by adoptive parents during this period of development.
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