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Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003 Sep;28(9):1656-65. Epub 2003 Jul 2.

Higher cortisol levels following exposure to traumatic reminders in abuse-related PTSD.

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  • 1Section of Clinical and Health Psychology, Leiden University, The Netherlands.


Animal studies have found that prior stressful events can result in increased reactivity in the HPA-axis. However, baseline function of the HPA-axis has typically been normal or decreased in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The first purpose of this study was to assess cortisol responsivity to traumatic reminders in women with PTSD related to childhood abuse. The second aim was to assess the relationship between stress-induced cortisol levels and neutral and emotional memory. Salivary cortisol levels were measured before, during and after exposure to personalized trauma scripts in abused women with (N=12) and without current PTSD (N=12). Memory for neutral and emotional material was assessed immediately after trauma scripts exposure and 3 days later. PTSD patients had 122% higher cortisol levels during script exposure, 69% higher cortisol levels during recovery, and 60% higher levels in the period leading up to the script exposure compared to controls. PTSD symptoms were highly predictive of cortisol levels during trauma script exposure (r=0.70), but not during periods of rest. Both in PTSD patients and controls, memory consolidation after the trauma scripts was impaired relative to baseline (P<0.001), with no differences between the two groups on memory performance. There was no association between memory performance and cortisol levels. These results are consistent with higher cortisol levels following exposure to traumatic stressors in PTSD.

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