Cognitive deficits in relation to personality type and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis dysfunction in women with stress-related exhaustion

Scand J Psychol. 2011 Feb;52(1):71-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9450.2010.00844.x. Epub 2010 Oct 22.


Exhaustion caused by long-term work-related stress may cause cognitive dysfunction. We explored factors that may link chronic stress and cognitive impairment. Personality, psychiatric screening, and behavior were assessed by self-reporting measures in 20 female patients (mean age 39.3 years; range 26-53) with a preliminary diagnosis of stress-related exhaustion and in 16 healthy matched controls. Cognitive performance was investigated with a detailed neuropsychological test battery. Cortisol axis function was assessed by urinary and saliva collections of cortisol, dexamethasone suppression, Synacthen response, and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) tests. Proinflammatory cytokines were measured. Hippocampal volumes were estimated by magnetic resonance imaging. Multivariate and univariate statistical methods were used to explore putative differences between groups and factors linked to cognitive impairment. Cognitive function clearly differed between groups, with decreased attention and visuospatial memory in the patient group, suggesting frontal cortex/medial temporal cortex-network dysfunction. Increased harm avoidance and persistence was present among patients, with lowered self-directedness linked to lower quality of life, increased anxious and depressive tendencies, and experiences of psychosocial stress. Attention was decreased with concomitantly impaired visuospatial memory. The pituitary (adrenocorticotropic hormone, ACTH) response to CRH was decreased in patients, with an increased cortisol/ACTH response to CRH. However, cortisol production rates, diurnal or dexamethasone-suppressed saliva cortisol levels, and the cortisol response to Synacthen were unaltered. Hippocampal volumes did not differ between groups. These findings suggest that cognitive dysfunction in stress-related exhaustion is linked to distinct personality traits, low quality of life, and a decreased ACTH response to CRH.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cognition Disorders / complications
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Mental Fatigue / complications
  • Mental Fatigue / physiopathology*
  • Mental Fatigue / psychology
  • Middle Aged
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Organ Size
  • Personality / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology*
  • Saliva / chemistry
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology
  • Surveys and Questionnaires


  • Hydrocortisone