Altered cortisol awakening response in posttraumatic stress disorder

Michèle Wessa, Nicolas Rohleder, Clemens Kirschbaum, Herta Flor
Psychoneuroendocrinology 2006, 31 (2): 209-15
An altered function of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis is assumed to be characteristic for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), although there is inconsistent empirical evidence. Only few studies examined the awakening cortisol response and a daytime profile in PTSD. Salivary cortisol levels were measured at seven intervals from awakening until 8 PM in trauma-exposed subjects with (N=29) and without PTSD (N=19) and in 15 non-exposed controls. While the three groups did not differ with respect to their first cortisol level immediately after awakening, the expected cortisol increase to awakening 15-60 min later was significantly lower in PTSD patients compared to non-PTSD subjects and healthy controls. This effect remained stable when trauma-exposed subjects with comorbid major depression were excluded from the analysis. A significant negative correlation between the overall cortisol secretion (AUC(G)) and overall PTSD symptomatology and hyper-arousal symptoms was found. The findings are discussed in light of the hypothesis of a counterregulation of hyper-arousal symptoms and chronic stress in PTSD.

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