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J Psychiatr Res. 2011 Feb;45(2):249-55. doi: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2010.06.008. Epub 2010 Jul 8.

Cortisol and dehydroepiandrosterone-sulphate levels correlate with symptom severity in first-episode psychosis.

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  • 1Orygen Youth Health Research Centre, Centre for Youth Mental Health, University of Melbourne, Australia.



Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and its sulphate form (DHEA) are neuroactive steroids with antiglucocorticoid properties. An imbalance in the ratio of cortisol to DHEA(S) has been implicated in the pathophysiology of stress-related psychiatric disorders. This study prospectively investigated circulating cortisol, DHEAS and their ratio in first-episode psychosis (FEP) patients compared to healthy controls, and their relationship to perceived stress, psychotic, negative and mood symptoms.


Blood cortisol and DHEAS levels were obtained in 39 neuroleptic-naïve or minimally-treated FEP patients and 25 controls. Twenty-three patients and 15 controls received repeat assessments after 12 weeks. Perceived stress was assessed using the Perceived Stress Scale and symptoms were assessed in patients using standard rating scales.


At baseline, no differences were observed in cortisol, DHEAS or the cortisol/DHEAS ratio between patients and controls. There were also no group differences in the change in these biological variables during the study period. Within FEP patients, decreases in cortisol and the cortisol/DHEAS ratio over time were directly related to the improvement in depression (r = 0.45; p = 0.031, r = 0.52; p = 0.01), negative (r = 0.51; p = 0.006, r = 0.55; p = 0.008) and psychotic symptoms (cortisol only, r = 0.53; p = 0.01). Perceived stress significantly correlated with DHEAS (r = 0.51; p = 0.019) and the cortisol/DHEAS ratio (r = -0.49; p = 0.024) in controls, but not patients, possibly reflecting an impaired hormonal response to stress in FEP patients.


These findings further support the involvement of the stress system in the pathophysiology of psychotic disorders, with implications for treatment strategies that modulate these neurosteroids.

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