Lower cortisol levels in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may reflect a preexisting vulnerability associated with developing the disorder after trauma exposure. Because offspring of trauma survivors with PTSD have a greater prevalence of PTSD after their own life events than offspring of trauma survivors without PTSD and offspring of nonexposed persons, examination of patterns of basal cortisol secretion in such offspring provides an opportunity to test this hypothesis.
To characterize the patterns of basal cortisol secretion in offspring of Holocaust survivors with and without parental PTSD and children of nonexposed parents.
Cortisol secretion was measured every 30 minutes for 24 hours. The raw hormonal data were subjected to a chronobiological analysis by applying single-oscillator and multioscillator cosinor analyses, a nonlinear least squares curve-fitting program, to determine circadian and ultradian regulatory dynamics.
The study was conducted under controlled conditions at the General Clinical Research Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Twenty-three Holocaust offspring with parental PTSD and 10 without parental PTSD were compared with 16 children of nonexposed parents. No participant had PTSD.
Main Outcome Measures
Mean cortisol levels during the 24-hour cycle and other chronobiological parameters (amplitude, acrophase, circadian quotient, and goodness-of-fit coefficient) derived from single-oscillator and multioscillator models.
Offspring with parental PTSD displayed lower mean cortisol levels, reflected by the circadian mesor and reduced cortisol amplitude, compared with offspring without parental PTSD and children of nonexposed parents. This effect seemed to be specifically related to the presence of maternal PTSD.
Low cortisol levels and other chronobiological alterations in offspring are associated with the risk factor of maternal PTSD, raising the possibility that these alterations are acquired via glucocorticoid programming either from in utero exposures or in response to maternal behaviors early in life.