Minireview: Stress-Related Psychiatric Disorders with Low Cortisol Levels

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Several stress-associated neuropsychiatric disorders, notably posttraumatic stress disorder and chronic pain and fatigue syndromes, paradoxically exhibit somewhat low plasma levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The effects appear greatest in those initially traumatized in early life, implying a degree of developmental programming, perhaps of both lower cortisol and vulnerability to psychopathology. In these conditions, lowered cortisol is not due to any adrenal or pituitary insufficiency. Instead, two processes appear involved. First, there is increased target cell sensitivity to glucocorticoid action, notably negative feedback upon the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (stress) axis. Altered density of the glucocorticoid receptor is inferred, squaring with much preclinical data showing early life challenges can permanently program glucocorticoid receptors in a tissue-specific manner. These effects involve epigenetic mechanisms. Second, early life trauma/starvation induces long-lasting lowering of glucocorticoid catabolism, specifically by 5α-reductase type 1 (predominantly a liver enzyme) and 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (in kidney), an effect also seen in model systems. These changes reflect a plausible early-life adaptation to increase the persistence of active cortisol in liver (to maximize fuel output) and kidney (to increase salt retention) without elevation of circulating levels, thus avoiding their deleterious effects on brain and muscle. Modestly lowered circulating cortisol and increased vulnerability to stress-associated disorders may be the outcome. This notion implies a vulnerable early-life phenotype may be discernable and indicates potential therapy by modest glucocorticoid replacement. Indeed, early clinical trials with cortisol have shown a modicum of promise.

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