May 24, 1999 University Park, Pa. --- Shedding new light on the biology of violence, a Penn State-led team has found evidence, for the first time, in pregnant teens that lower concentrations of a stress hormone in the blood are linked to greater numbers of depression and conduct disorder symptoms.
Dr. Elizabeth Susman, the Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health and leader of the study, says, "We've identified a biological marker for anti-social behavior and depression in pregnant teens. While we don't know if the lower hormone concentrations make the teen vulnerable to conduct disorder or if, instead, antisocial behavior and depression alter the concentration of the hormone, we do now have evidence that the hormone is associated with emotions and behavior during pregnancy."
The research is detailed in the current issue (April) of the Journal of the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry in a paper, "Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone and Cortisol: Longitudinal Associations with Depression and Antisocial Behavior in Pregnant Adolescents."
Susman's co-authors are Karen H. Schmeelk, a Penn State doctoral candidate in biobehavioral health; Brenda K. Worrall, Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine Fellow, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Dr. Douglas A. Granger, Penn State assistant professor of biobehavioral health; Dr. Angelo Ponirakis, postdoctoral fellow, University of Montreal; and Dr. George P. Chrousos, chief, section of Pediatric Endocrinology, National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, Bethesda, Md.
The study sample consisted of 59 teens, 58 White and one African American, who were interviewed and assessed for depression and antisocial behavior early and late in their pregnancies as well as after the birth of their children. Blood samples were drawn at the first interview and the hormone, corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH), was measured.
The researchers found that lower CRH concentrations in the blood early in pregnancy were associated with a greater number of conduct disorder symptoms during early, but not late, pregnancy and predictive of the same symptoms after the teen gave birth. The symptoms included truancy, stealing from parents, trouble with the law, and other uncooperative or antisocial behavior.
The authors noted, "The finding that CRH in early pregnancy did not predict conduct disorder symptoms in late pregnancy may reflect the limited opportunities for participating in antisocial behavior in late pregnancy."
Lower CRH concentrations early in pregnancy were also associated with greater numbers of depression symptoms in the second and third trimesters, but were not predictive of depression symptoms after childbirth.
The authors write, "The absence of a relationship between CRH and depression in the postpartum period indicates that other causes or correlates of depression, such as the stress of parenting, endocrine factors, or psychosocial factors are relatively more important to self-reports of depression than CRH."
In conclusion, the authors suggest that the association between depression, conduct and CRH indicates that adolescents should be monitored closely during pregnancy. CRH is related to fetal lung maturation in later pregnancy and lower concentrations of CRH may delay lung maturation. In addition, adolescents who are depressed or exhibit conduct disorder symptoms may be less compliant with good health behaviors during pregnancy.
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