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J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2004 Dec;89(12):6244-50.

The heritability of hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis responses to psychosocial stress is context dependent.

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Department of Clinical and Theoretical Psychobiology, University of Trier, Germany.


Individual differences in the response of the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis to stress are known to play an important role in health and disease risk. The origins, or determinants, of these individual differences are not well understood. To date, no study has examined the effects of context on the heritability of psychoendocrine stress responses. In the present study, 58 male twin pairs were exposed to a psychosocial stressor (Trier Social Stress Test) three times at weekly intervals, and their salivary and total cortisol, ACTH, and heart rate responses were assessed. Modest heritabilities were observed for all measures at the first stress exposure (all h2 < 0.33), but heritability estimates increased substantially with repetition of the stressor (T3: all h2 > 0.97). Concurrently, only the first but not the second and third Trier Social Stress Test exposure induced a significant increase in state anxiety (T1: P < 0.01, T2 and T3: n.s.), suggesting low heritabilities in a new, anxiety-evoking context and high heritabilities in a familiar, low-anxiety context. These findings challenge previous reports on a low heritability of markers of stimulated hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis activity and are the first to document the relevance of context for psychoendocrine heritability estimates.

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