Associations between dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) levels, pituitary volume, and social anxiety in children

Cynthia R. Murray, Julian G. Simmons, Nicholas B. Allen, Michelle L. Byrne, Lisa K. Mundy, Marc L. Seal, George C. Patton, Craig A. Olsson, Sarah Whittle

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16 Citations (Scopus)


Early timing of adrenarche, associated with relatively high levels of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulphate (DHEA-S) in children, has been linked with mental health problems, particularly anxiety. However, little is known about possible neurobiological mechanisms underlying this association. The pituitary gland is a key component of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the activation of which triggers the onset of adrenarche. The purpose of this study was to examine the extent to which pituitary gland volume mediated the relationship between levels of DHEA/DHEA-S relative to age (i.e., adrenarcheal timing) and symptoms of anxiety in 95 children (50 female, M age 9.50 years, SD 0.34 years). Relatively high DHEA and DHEA-S (DHEA/S) levels were found to be associated with larger pituitary gland volumes. There was no significant direct effect of relative DHEA/S levels on overall symptoms of anxiety. However, results supported an indirect link between relatively high DHEA/S levels and symptoms of social anxiety, mediated by pituitary gland volume. No sex differences were observed for any relationship. Our findings suggest that neurobiological mechanisms may be partly responsible for the link between relatively early adrenarche and anxiety symptoms in children. One possible mechanism for this finding is that an enlarged pituitary gland in children experiencing relatively advanced adrenarche might be associated with hyper-activity/reactivity of the HPA axis. Further research is needed to understand the role of stress in the link between adrenarcheal timing and HPA-axis function, especially in relation to the development of anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-39
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Adrenarche
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone
  • HPA axis
  • Pituitary gland
  • Puberty
  • Social anxiety

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