The human hippocampus, a brain structure crucial for memory across the lifespan, is highly sensitive to adverse life events. Stress exposures during childhood have been linked to altered hippocampal structure and memory performance in adulthood. Animal studies suggest that these differences are in part driven by aberrant glucocorticoid secretion during development, with strongest effects on the CA3 region and the dentate gyrus (CA3-DG) of the hippocampus, alongside associated memory impairments. However, only few pediatric studies have examined glucocorticoid associations with hippocampal subfield volumes and their functional relevance. In 84 children (age range: 6–7 years), we assessed whether volumes of hippocampal subregions were related to cumulative glucocorticoid levels (hair cortisol), parenting stress, and performance on memory tasks known to engage the hippocampus. We found that higher hair cortisol levels were specifically related to lower CA3-DG volume. Parenting stress did not significantly correlate with hair cortisol, and there was no evidence to suggest that individual differences in hippocampal subregional volumes manifest in memory performance. Our results suggest that the CA3-DG may be the hippocampal region most closely associated with hair cortisol levels in childhood. Establishing causal pathways underlying this association and its relation to environmental stress and memory development necessitates longitudinal studies.
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