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Callous-unemotional traits, low cortisol reactivity and physical aggression in children: findings from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study

Wright, N and Hill, J and Pickles, A and Sharp, H (2019) Callous-unemotional traits, low cortisol reactivity and physical aggression in children: findings from the Wirral Child Health and Development Study. Translational Psychiatry, 9 (1). ISSN 2158-3188

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Abstract

© 2019, The Author(s). Callous-unemotional (CU) traits are thought to confer risk for aggression via reduced amygdala responsivity to distress cues in others. Low cortisol reactivity is thought to confer risk for aggression via reduced arousal and this effect may be confined to boys. We tested the hypothesis that the association between childhood CU traits and aggression would be greatest in the absence of the inhibitory effects of cortisol reactivity, and that this effect would be sex dependent. Participants were 283 members of a stratified subsample within an epidemiological longitudinal cohort (WCHADS). Cortisol reactivity to a social stressor was assessed at 5 years. CU traits were reported by mothers at 5 years, and physical aggression by mothers and teachers at age 7. Results showed that CU traits were associated with elevated aggression at 7 years controlling for earlier aggression. There was no main effect of cortisol reactivity on regression. The association between CU traits and aggression was moderated by cortisol reactivity (p =.011) with a strong association between CU traits and aggression in the presence of low reactivity, and a small and non-significant association in the presence of high reactivity. This association was further moderated by child sex (p =.041) with the joint effect of high CU traits and low cortisol reactivity seen only in boys (p =.016). We report first evidence that a combined deficit in inhibitory processes associated with CU traits and low cortisol reactivity increases risk for childhood aggression, in a sex-dependent manner.

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