Salivary cortisol and psychopathy dimensions in detained antisocial adolescents

J. Feilhauer, M.J. Cima-Knijff, A. Korebrits, N.A. Nicolson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Previous research revealed hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis abnormalities in relation to antisocial and aggressive behavior. Some evidence suggests that low cortisol levels may serve as a biological marker for a severe antisocial subgroup with pronounced callous–unemotional (CU) traits. Children displaying the combination of severe antisocial behavior and CU traits appear to be particularly at risk of developing adult psychopathy. Given the lack of studies on the relationship between cortisol levels and CU traits in antisocial adolescents, the current study investigates whether cortisol levels are uniquely associated with CU traits as compared to other psychopathy dimensions (i.e., narcissism and impulsivity). Detained antisocial adolescents (n = 63) and a community comparison group (n = 62) completed diaries and collected three saliva samples daily on two days, with compliance monitored electronically. Psychopathy dimensions were assessed through self-report questionnaires. Externalizing symptoms were assessed by structured clinical interview. Multilevel regression analyses indicated no differences in cortisol levels or diurnal slopes between the two groups. Overall, cortisol levels were not significantly related to psychopathy dimensions. However, greater impulsivity was associated with lower cortisol levels in the community sample, but not in the antisocial group.
Results cast doubt on the notion of low cortisol levels as a biological marker for CU traits. Low basal cortisol levels appear to be more closely related to a general deficit in behavioral regulation. Implications for future research are discussed.
Keywords: Psychopathy dimensions, HPA axis, Cortisol, Conduct disorder, CU traits, Narcissism, Impulsivity, Aggression
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1586-1595
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 2013


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