Background: Previous evidence on endocrine risk markers for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been inconclusive. Here, we report results of the first prospective study to investigate whether long-term hair cortisol levels and experimentally-induced cortisol stress reactivity are predictive of the development of PTSD symptomatology in response to trauma during military deployment.
Methods: Male soldiers were examined before deployment to Afghanistan and at a 12-month post-deployment follow-up using dimensional measures for psychopathological symptoms. The predictive value of baseline (i) hair cortisol concentrations (HCC, N=90) and (ii) salivary cortisol stress reactivity (measured by the Trier Social Stress Test, N=80) for the development of PTSD symptomatology after being exposed to new-onset traumatic events was analyzed.
Results: Baseline cortisol activity significantly predicted PTSD symptom change from baseline to follow-up upon trauma exposure. Specifically, our results consistently revealed that lower HCC and lower cortisol stress reactivity were predictive of a greater increase in PTSD symptomatology in soldiers who had experienced new-onset traumatic events (explaining 5% and 10.3% of variance, respectively). Longitudinal analyses revealed an increase in HCC from baseline to follow-up and a trend for a negative relationship between HCC changes and the number of new-onset traumatic events. Additional pre-deployment analyses revealed that trauma history was reflected in lower HCC (at trend level) and that HCC were negatively related to stressful load.
Conclusions: Our data indicate that attenuated cortisol secretion is a risk marker for subsequent development of PTSD symptomatology upon trauma exposure. Future studies are needed to confirm our findings in other samples.
Keywords: Cortisol; Hair; Posttraumatic stress disorder; Saliva; Traumatization; Trier Social Stress Test.
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