Abuse-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Evidence for Chronic Neuroendocrine Activation in Women

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Abstract

The following study tested the hypothesis that women with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to childhood sexual abuse would display elevated norepinephrine-to-cortisol ratios similar to that found in male combat veterans diagnosed with PTSD. Twenty-four-hour urine samples were collected from 28 women: 11 women with PTSD who experienced childhood sexual abuse (PTSD+), 8 women who experienced childhood sexual abuse without PTSD (PTSD-), and 9 nonabused controls. All urine samples were tested for creatinine, total catecholamines, free-cortisol, and 17-ketosteroid levels. Psychological testing validated that the PTSD+ group was significantly elevated on all three subscales of the Impact of Events Scale. Both abused groups (PTSD+ and PTSD-) showed a tendency for polyuria, and the PTSD+ group showed a tendency towards obesity. Thus, neuroendocrine values (microg/day) were adjusted by creatinine clearance rates (creatinine mg/day/kg body weight). The corrected values indicated that the PTSD+ group had significantly elevated daily levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, and cortisol. However, because of the parallel elevation in cortisol, the norepinephrine-to-cortisol ratio was not significantly elevated in the PTSD+ diagnosed women in contrast to the findings reported for male PTSD patients. This discrepancy may reflect an important gender difference, an interaction between gender and age at onset of the traumatic experience (childhood abuse in females vs. combat experience in young adult males), or physiological variation related to phase of the disorder.

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