Testosterone and hippocampal trajectories mediate relationship of poverty to emotion dysregulation and depression

Deanna M. Barch, Elizabeth A. Shirtcliff, Nourhan M. Elsayed, Diana Whalen, Kirsten Gilbert, Alecia C. Vogel, Rebecca Tillman, Joan L. Luby

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


There is robust evidence that early poverty is associated with poor developmental outcomes, including impaired emotion regulation and depression. However, the specific mechanisms that mediate this risk are less clear. Here we test the hypothesis that one pathway involves hormone mechanisms (testosterone and DHEA) that contribute to disruption of hippocampal brain development, which in turn contributes to perturbed emotion regulation and subsequent risk for depression. To do so, we used data from 167 children participating in the Preschool Depression Study, a longitudinal study that followed children from preschool (ages 3 to 5 y) to late adolescence, and which includes prospective assessments of poverty in preschool, measures of testosterone, DHEA, and hippocampal volume across school age and adolescence, andmeasures of emotion regulation and depression in adolescence. Using multilevel modeling and linear regression, we found that early poverty predicted shallower increases of testosterone, but not DHEA, across development, which in turn predicted shallower trajectories of hippocampal development. Further, we found that early poverty predicted both impaired emotion regulation and depression. The relationship between early poverty and self-reported depression in adolescence was explained by serial mediation through testosterone to hippocampus to emotion dysregulation. There were no significant interactions with sex. These results provide evidence about a hormonal pathway by which early poverty may contribute to disrupted brain development and risk for mental health problems later in life. Identification of such pathways provide evidence for potential points of intervention that might help mitigate the impact of early adversity on brain development.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22015-22023
Number of pages9
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 8 2020


  • Development
  • Emotion regulation
  • Hippocampus
  • Poverty
  • Testosterone


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