The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis may mediate the deleterious effects of stress on health. It is sensitive to cognitive and emotional aspects of organism-environment interactions, such as familiarity, control, and social support. Scientific study of how such factors moderate human HPA axis activity has been limited. Their relevance to HPA axis disturbances in psychiatric patients is largely unexplored.
To determine whether cognitive manipulation can alter HPA axis activity in laboratory studies and whether patients with panic disorder are differentially sensitive to the manipulated factors.
Pharmacological activation paradigm (cholecystokinin-B agonist pentagastrin) by which we examined symptom and endocrine effects on subjects randomly assigned to a standard introduction or a cognitive intervention.
Clinical research center.
Recruited from university clinic and newspaper advertisements. Fourteen patients with panic disorder and 14 controls, individually matched for age and sex.
Half of each group received a 9-minute cognitive intervention designed to reduce novelty, increase cognitive coping, and provide a sense of control.
Main Outcome Measures
Corticotropin (ACTH) and cortisol levels.
The cognitive intervention significantly reduced cortisol (P = .02) and ACTH (P = .01) levels, despite pentagastrin’s robust stimulation of both hormones (P<.001). The intervention effect was evident in patients and controls, who did not differ in basal HPA axis activity or response to pentagastrin. They did differ in panic symptom responses, which were unaffected by the intervention, and in ACTH effects of the intervention. Patients’ exaggerated anxiety responses to pentagastrin were normalized by the intervention.
Cognitive/emotional manipulation can substantially modulate HPA axis responses to pharmacological activation in humans, and HPA disturbances in panic disorder may be secondary to manipulable cognitive/emotional sensitivities. Further study of such factors as novelty, control, and coping may help clarify the origins of HPA axis disturbance in psychiatric disorders and the mediators linking psychosocial stress to disease.