Objective: The level of T cell activation in untreated HIV disease is strongly and independently associated with risk of immunologic and clinical progression. The factors that influence the level of activation, however, are not fully defined. Since endogenous glucocorticoids are important in regulating inflammation, we sought to determine whether less optimal diurnal cortisol patterns are associated with greater T cell activation.
Methods: We studied 128 HIV-infected adults who were not on treatment and had a CD4(+) T cell count above 250 cells/µl. We assessed T cell activation by CD38 expression using flow cytometry, and diurnal cortisol was assessed with salivary measurements.
Results: Lower waking cortisol levels correlated with greater T cell immune activation, measured by CD38 mean fluorescent intensity, on CD4(+) T cells (r = -0.26, p = 0.006). Participants with lower waking cortisol also showed a trend toward greater activation on CD8(+) T cells (r = -0.17, p = 0.08). A greater diurnal decline in cortisol, usually considered a healthy pattern, correlated with less CD4(+) (r = 0.24, p = 0.018) and CD8(+) (r = 0.24, p = 0.017) activation.
Conclusions: These data suggest that the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis contributes to the regulation of T cell activation in HIV. This may represent an important pathway through which psychological states and the HPA axis influence progression of HIV.