Girls are less well able to cope with stress than boys – after stressful events, girls are more often prone to feelings of depression. Girls with parents who have suffered depression also react differently to stress than boys. This has been discovered by researcher Esther Bouma of the University Medical Center Groningen. She will be awarded a PhD for her research by the University of Groningen on 2 June 2010.
During puberty, the incidence of depression increases, particularly among girls. One of the most important risk factors for depression is social stress, even though not everyone becomes depressed by stress. Bouma investigated which factors determined why some young people became depressed after experiencing psychosocial stress and others did not.
In order to investigate how boys and girls physically react to stress, Bouma asked a group of 715 sixteen-year-olds to complete a stress task. The teenagers were asked to prepare a brief presentation of their lives in seven minutes. The presentation was then filmed and the participants were told that their story, attitude and way of presentation would be assessed by peers. The teenagers were also asked to perform difficult arithmetic sums out loud, and under pressure of time. The amount of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva was measured before, during and after this task.
Bouma discovered that girls react differently to stress than boys. For example, girls’ saliva contained a lower concentration of cortisol than boys’. There also turned out to be a difference between girls using oral contraceptives (the pill) and those who weren’t. The former group actually had no measureable cortisol reaction at all. Despite the differences in physical reactions, there was no difference in the amount of stress the teenagers themselves said they experienced. One possible explanation for the differences is that the hormones in the pill influence the activation of the stress system.
Variations in hormone regulation may explain another remarkable difference between the sexes – genetic risk factors for depression are more prominent in puberty in girls than in boys. Girls with parents who had ever suffered depression had a lower cortisol reaction during the stress task than girls with parents who had no problems. It looks like the way we react to stress is partly inherited.
Bouma conducted her research within the framework of TRAILS (TRacking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey), a large-scale, long-term research project on the mental, physical and social development of about 2,500 adolescents in the North of the Netherlands. The adolescents, now about 18 years old, have participated in four different assessments between the ages of ten and nineteen. . Bouma’s research on the link between stress, gender, genetic profile and depression is based on the third measurement, conducted in 2007.
Esther Bouma (Haarlem, 1976) studied biology at the University of Groningen. She conducted her research at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Psychiatric Epidemiology (ICPE) of the University Medical Center Groningen. The research was financed by a grant from NWO. Bouma will be awarded a PhD by the Faculty of Medical Sciences. Her supervisor was Prof. A.J. Oldehinkel. The title of her thesis is ‘The sensitive sex. Depressive symptoms in adolescence and the role of gender, genes and physiological stress responses.’ Bouma is a postdoceral researcher at the Department of Psychiatry of the University Medical Center Groningen.
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