Links between white matter microstructure and cortisol reactivity to stress in early childhood: evidence for moderation by parenting.
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Activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (measured via cortisol reactivity) may be a biological marker of risk for depression and anxiety, possibly even early in development. However, the structural neural correlates of early cortisol reactivity are not well known, although these would potentially inform broader models of mechanisms of risk, especially if the early environment further shapes these relationships. Therefore, we examined links between white matter architecture and young girls' cortisol reactivity and whether early caregiving moderated these links. We recruited 45 6-year-old girls based on whether they had previously shown high or low cortisol reactivity to a stress task at age 3. White matter integrity was assessed by calculating fractional anisotropy (FA) of diffusion-weighted magnetic resonance imaging scans. Parenting styles were measured via a standardized parent-child interaction task. Significant associations were found between FA in white matter regions adjacent to the left thalamus, the right anterior cingulate cortex, and the right superior frontal gyrus (all ps < .001). Further, positive early caregiving moderated the effect of high cortisol reactivity on white matter FA (all ps ≤ .05), with high stress reactive girls who received greater parent positive affect showing white matter structure more similar to that of low stress reactive girls. Results show associations between white matter integrity of various limbic regions of the brain and early cortisol reactivity to stress and provide preliminary support for the notion that parenting may moderate associations.