IPR Psychologist Wins Stress Research Award

Emma Adam's research leads to better understanding of adolescent stress, depression, and anxiety

emma adam
ISPNE President Rachel Yehuda
and Emma Adam (r).

IPR developmental psychologist Emma Adam received the 2013 Curt Richter Award from the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (ISPNE) on August 20. Recognizing a distinguished young investigator in the field, it was conferred for her research contributions thus far to the field of psychoneuroendocrinology, including her award paper detailing the first evidence that changes in cortisol can predict the start of anxiety disorders in adolescents and young adults.

Adam’s research focuses on how everyday life factors influence biological stress and health in parents and children.  Much of her work involves measuring levels of cortisol, a hormone that responds to stress and follows a strong daily rhythm.  Cortisol is a product of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, one of the body’s major biological stress systems.

In her winning paper, Adam and her colleagues measured the cortisol awakening response (CAR), or the difference in cortisol levels upon waking and 40 minutes later, in adolescents and monitored the participants for six years. Their study is the first to show that the cortisol awakening response can strongly predict the first onset of an anxiety disorders, and in particular, social anxiety disorders over the subsequent six years, rather than just acting as a marker for a previous onset. Adam’s previous work had shown similar results between CAR and the onset of major depressive disorder.

Social anxiety disorder is of particular interest in relation to cortisol activity because it is characterized by fear of negative social evaluation, and social evaluative threat has proven to be a potent activator of the HPA-axis. It is also one of the most common anxiety disorders, associated with a high degree of impairment including increased rates of unemployment, financial hardship, and drug dependency. Adam and her colleagues hope future research will focus on the determinants of CAR, as well as whether it has a causal role in the development of depression and anxiety or is just an indicator.

Adam accepted the award at the ISPNE annual conference in Leiden, the Netherlands. In her plenary lecture, she gave an overview of her research findings from her past studies, including the Youth Emotion Project, a longitudinal study examining risk factors for emotional disorders, which provided the data for many of her notable papers, including her award paper, “Prospective Associations Between the Cortisol Awakening Response and Social Anxiety Disorder Onsets in Older Adolescents and Young Adults Over a Six-Year Follow-Up.” The project was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Emma Adam is professor of human development and social policy and an IPR fellow.