Circulating angiogenic cell function is inhibited by cortisol in vitro and associated with psychological stress and cortisol in vivo

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2016 May;67:216-23. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.02.019. Epub 2016 Feb 23.


Psychological stress and glucocorticoids are associated with heightened cardiovascular disease risk. We investigated whether stress or cortisol would be associated with reduced circulating angiogenic cell (CAC) function, an index of impaired vascular repair. We hypothesized that minority-race individuals who experience threat in interracial interactions would exhibit reduced CAC function, and that this link might be explained by cortisol. To test this experimentally, we recruited 106 African American participants for a laboratory interracial interaction task, in which they received socially evaluative feedback from Caucasian confederates. On a separate day, a subset of 32 participants (mean age=26years, 47% female) enrolled in a separate biological substudy and provided blood samples for CAC isolation and salivary samples to quantify the morning peak in cortisol (the cortisol awakening response, CAR). CAC function was quantified using cell culture assays of migration to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and secretion of VEGF into the culture medium. Heightened threat in response to an interracial interaction and trait anxiety in vivo were both associated with poorer CAC migratory function in vitro. Further, threat and poorer sustained attention during the interracial interaction were associated with a higher CAR, which in turn, was related to lower CAC sensitivity to glucocorticoids. In vitro, higher doses of cortisol impaired CAC migratory function and VEGF protein secretion. The glucocorticoid receptor antagonist RU486 reversed this functional impairment. These data identify a novel, neuroendocrine pathway by which psychological stress may reduce CAC function, with potential implications for cardiovascular health.

Keywords: Angiogenesis; Anxiety; Circulating hematopoietic progenitor cells; Endothelial progenitor cells; Executive function; Sustained attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety
  • Attention
  • Black or African American / psychology
  • Cell Migration Assays
  • Cell Movement
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Endothelial Progenitor Cells / drug effects
  • Endothelial Progenitor Cells / metabolism*
  • Endothelial Progenitor Cells / physiology*
  • Fear
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Mifepristone / pharmacology
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / metabolism*
  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A / pharmacology
  • Young Adult


  • Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor A
  • Mifepristone
  • Hydrocortisone