PTSD risk can be predicted by hormone levels prior to deployment, study says

March 7, 2017, University of Texas at Austin

Up to 20 percent of U.S. veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from trauma experienced during wartime, but new neuroscience research from The University of Texas at Austin suggests some soldiers might have a hormonal predisposition to experience such stress-related disorders.

Cortisol—the stress hormone—is released as part of the body's flight-or-fight response to life-threatening emergencies. Seminal research in the 1980s connected abnormal cortisol levels to an increased risk for PTSD, but three decades of subsequent research produced a mixed bag of findings, dampening enthusiasm for the role of cortisol as a primary cause of PTSD.

However, new findings published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology point to cortisol's critical role in the emergence of PTSD, but only when levels of testosterone—one of most important of the male sex hormones—are suppressed, researchers said.

"Recent evidence points to testosterone's suppression of cortisol activity, and vice versa. It is becoming clear to many researchers that you can't understand the effects of one without simultaneously monitoring the activity of the other," said UT Austin professor of psychology Robert Josephs, the first author of the study. "Prior attempts to link PTSD to cortisol may have failed because the powerful effect that testosterone has on the hormonal regulation of stress was not taken into account."

UT Austin researchers used hormone data obtained from saliva samples of 120 U.S. soldiers before deployment and tracked their monthly combat experiences in Iraq to examine the effects of traumatic war-zone stressors and PTSD symptoms over time.

Before deployment, soldiers' stress responses were tested in a stressful CO2 inhalation challenge. "Healthy stress responses showed a strong cortisol increase in response to the stressor, whereas abnormal stress responses showed a blunted, nonresponsive change in cortisol," Josephs said.

The researchers found that soldiers who had an abnormal cortisol response to the CO2 inhalation challenge were more likely to develop PTSD from war-zone stress. However, soldiers who had an elevated testosterone response to the CO2 inhalation challenge were not likely to develop PTSD, regardless of the soldiers' cortisol response.

"The means through which hormones contribute to the development of PTSD and other forms of stress-related mental illness are complex," said Adam Cobb, a UT Austin clinical psychology doctoral candidate and co-author of the study. "Advancement in this area must involve examining how hormones function together, and with other psychobiological systems, in response to ever-changing environmental demands."

Knowing this, the scientists suggest future research could investigate the efficacy of preventative interventions targeting those with at-risk profiles of hormone stress reactivity. "We are still analyzing more data from this project, which we hope will reveal additional insights into risk for combat-related stress disorders and ultimately how to prevent them," said Michael Telch, clinical psychology professor and corresponding author of the study.

Explore further: Married people have lower levels of stress hormone

More information: Robert A. Josephs et al. Dual-hormone stress reactivity predicts downstream war-zone stress-evoked PTSD, Psychoneuroendocrinology (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.01.013

Related Stories

Married people have lower levels of stress hormone

February 13, 2017
Studies have suggested that married people are healthier than those who are single, divorced or widowed. A new Carnegie Mellon University study provides the first biological evidence to explain how marriage impacts health.

Stress hormones underlie Indigenous health gap in Australia

February 2, 2017
James Cook University scientists have made a disturbing finding about some young Indigenous people's biological reaction to stress, but one that could help close the health gap for indigenous people.

Increased reaction to stress linked to gastrointestinal issues in children with autism

January 4, 2017
One in 45 American children lives with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these children also have significant gastrointestinal issues, but the cause of these symptoms ...

Hormones influence unethical behavior

July 28, 2015
Hormones play a two-part role in encouraging and reinforcing cheating and other unethical behavior, according to research from Harvard University and The University of Texas at Austin.

Meditation, stretching ease PTSD symptoms in nurses

May 29, 2013
Practicing a form of meditation and stretching can help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and normalize stress hormone levels, according to a recent study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society's ...

Recommended for you

Ketamine acts fast to treat depression and its effects last—but how?

June 21, 2018
In contrast to most antidepressant medications, which can take several weeks to reduce depressive symptoms, ketamine—a commonly used veterinary anesthetic—can lift a person out of a deep depression within minutes of its ...

Psychiatric disorders share an underlying genetic basis

June 21, 2018
Psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often run in families. In a new international collaboration, researchers explored the genetic connections between these and other disorders of the brain at ...

One year of school comes with an IQ bump, meta-analysis shows

June 21, 2018
A year of schooling leaves students with new knowledge, and it also equates with a small but noticeable increase to students' IQ, according to a systematic meta-analysis published in Psychological Science, a journal of the ...

Mindful movement may help lower stress, anxiety

June 21, 2018
Taking a walk may be a good opportunity to mentally review your to-do list, but using the time to instead be more mindful of your breathing and surroundings may help boost your wellbeing, according to researchers.

Brain tingles—first study of its kind reveals physiological benefits of ASMR

June 21, 2018
Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) – the relaxing 'brain tingles' experienced by some people in response to specific triggers, such as whispering, tapping and slow hand movements – may have benefits for both ...

New study debunks Dale Carnegie advice to 'put yourself in their shoes'

June 21, 2018
Putting yourself in someone else's shoes and relying on intuition or "gut instinct" isn't an accurate way to determine what they're thinking or feeling," say researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

BubbaNicholson
1 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2017
Fix it with 250mg of healthy adult male facial skin surface lipids p.o. Use oscillating fans, package pheromone with activated charcoal to absorb "zenite gas". Staff to collect and administer only while using supplied air respirators. Social isolation of pheromone treated PTSD sufferers for 40 days until saliva clears. No osculation (as it causes artificial jealousy in kissing partners), "Zenite gas" pheromone airborne emission causes arrogance, suspicion, stupidity, and distrust.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.