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Gender differences on the development of the stress system during adolescence

18 January 2011

Stressful lifespan events, smoking, and male and female sex hormones influence the adolescent stress system. This has been shown in research conducted among 715 sixteen-year-olds by Nienke Bosch of the Psychiatry Department of the UMCG. She studied which social, psychological and biological factors shape and influence the adolescent stress system. The research is part of TRAILS, a large-scale, long-term research project into the psychological, physical and social development of some 2,500 adolescents in the northern Netherlands. Bosch will be awarded a PhD on 26 January 2011 at the University of Groningen for her research.

For her research, Bosch gave adolescents a stressful task and measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol which were produced. The amount of cortisol was then related to the influence of negative/stressful events during the whole course of their lives, from the prenatal period up until the moment the stressful task was completed. The negative/stressful lifespan events in this research included maternal stress during and shortly after pregnancy, smoking and alcohol intake during pregnancy, premature birth, death of a family member, custodial placement, bullying and parental addiction. Adolescents who had experienced many negative/stressful life events reacted differently to the stressful task than those who had had few stressful experiences. The manner in which the cortisol reaction to the stress task was related to stressful events depended on the stage of life in which they occurred. Many negative stressful events during the pregnancy were related to higher levels of cortisol, whereas chronic stress during adolescence resulted in lower levels of cortisol production during the stressful task. The outcome bolstered the hypothesis that the developing brain is sensitive to the influences of stress. The results also showed that the stress system of girls is more sensitive to chronic stress during adolescence than that of boys. Possibly female sex hormones play a role in these differences. The researchers concluded that during the pregnancy parents have a determining influence on the development of the stress system of their children.

Smoking decreases the effect of the cortisol reaction to the stress task. This occurred in all the boys who smoked, while in girls this was only the case during the first stage of their menstrual cycle, the follicular phase. The girls who smoked actually showed no cortisol reaction at all during the first phase of the cycle. During the second stage of the menstrual cycle, or in girls taking birth control pills, smoking had no effect on the cortisol reaction. Thus, in addition to stressful environmental influences, adolescents also have a determining influence on the functioning of the stress system through their lifestyle – in this case with their smoking behaviour. The research was financed by NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.


Curriculum Vitae

Nienke Bosch (Groningen, 1974) studied Psychology at the University of Groningen. Her PhD research was part 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 northern Netherlands. TRAILS is supervised by the Interdisciplinary Centre for Psychiatric Epidemiology (ICPE) of the University Medical Center Groningen. Her thesis is entitled ‘Adolescents in stress: the ups and downs of the psychophysiological stress response’. The promotors are prof.dr. A.J. Oldehinkel and prof.dr. J. Ormel. Bosch will continue to work as researcher at the Psychiatry Department of the UMCG.


Note for the press

Please contact the UMCG Press Office for more information, tel. (050) 361 22 00


Last modified:13 March 2020 01.53 a.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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