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Original Contribution
August 2, 2000

Pituitary-Adrenal and Autonomic Responses to Stress in Women After Sexual and Physical Abuse in Childhood

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Center for Psychobiological and Psychosomatic Research, University of Trier, Trier, Germany (Dr Heim); and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Ga (Drs Newport, Heit, Graham, Bonsall, Miller, and Nemeroff, and Ms Wilcox).

JAMA. 2000;284(5):592-597. doi:10.1001/jama.284.5.592

Context Evidence suggests that early adverse experiences play a preeminent role in development of mood and anxiety disorders and that corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) systems may mediate this association.

Objective To determine whether early-life stress results in a persistent sensitization of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to mild stress in adulthood, thereby contributing to vulnerability to psychopathological conditions.

Design and Setting Prospective controlled study conducted from May 1997 to July 1999 at the General Clinical Research Center of Emory University Hospital, Atlanta, Ga.

Participants Forty-nine healthy women aged 18 to 45 years with regular menses, with no history of mania or psychosis, with no active substance abuse or eating disorder within 6 months, and who were free of hormonal and psychotropic medications were recruited into 4 study groups (n = 12 with no history of childhood abuse or psychiatric disorder [controls]; n = 13 with diagnosis of current major depression who were sexually or physically abused as children; n = 14 without current major depression who were sexually or physically abused as children; and n = 10 with diagnosis of current major depression and no history of childhood abuse).

Main Outcome Measures Adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol levels and heart rate responses to a standardized psychosocial laboratory stressor compared among the 4 study groups.

Results Women with a history of childhood abuse exhibited increased pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress compared with controls. This effect was particularly robust in women with current symptoms of depression and anxiety. Women with a history of childhood abuse and a current major depression diagnosis exhibited a more than 6-fold greater ACTH response to stress than age-matched controls (net peak of 9.0 pmol/L [41.0 pg/mL]; 95% confidence interval [CI], 4.7-13.3 pmol/L [21.6-60.4 pg/mL]; vs net peak of 1.4 pmol/L [6.19 pg/mL]; 95% CI, 0.2-2.5 pmol/L [1.0-11.4 pg/mL]; difference, 8.6 pmol/L [38.9 pg/mL]; 95% CI, 4.6-12.6 pmol/L [20.8-57.1 pg/mL]; P<.001).

Conclusions Our findings suggest that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and autonomic nervous system hyperreactivity, presumably due to CRF hypersecretion, is a persistent consequence of childhood abuse that may contribute to the diathesis for adulthood psychopathological conditions. Furthermore, these results imply a role for CRF receptor antagonists in the prevention and treatment of psychopathological conditions related to early-life stress.