Hair Cortisol Research in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder - 10 Years of Insights and Open Questions. A Systematic Review

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BACKGROUND: Cortisol is one of the most extensively studied biomarkers in the context of trauma/posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For more than a decade, hair cortisol concentrations (HCC) have been measured in this context, leading to a two-staged dysregulation model. Specifically, an elevated secretion during/immediately after trauma exposure eventually reverts to hyposecretion with increasing time since trauma exposure has been postulated.

OBJECTIVE: The aim of our systematic review was to re-evaluate the two-staged secretion model with regard to the accumulated diagnostic, prognostic, and intervention-related evidence of HCC in lifetime trauma exposure and PTSD. Further, we provide an overview of open questions, particularly with re- spect to reporting standards and quality criteria.

METHOD: A systematic literature search yielded 5,046 records, of which 31 studies were included.

RESULTS: For recent/ongoing (traumatic) stress, the predictions of cortisol hypersecretion could be largely confirmed. However, for the assumed hyposecretion temporally more distal to trauma expo- sure, the results are more ambiguous. As most studies did not report holistic overviews of trauma his- tory and confounding influences, this may largely be attributable to methodological limitations. Data on the prognostic and intervention-related benefits of HCC remain sparse.

CONCLUSION: Over the last decade, important insights could be gained about long-term cortisol secretion patterns following lifetime trauma exposure and PTSD. This systematic review integrates these insights into an updated secretion model for trauma/PTSD. We conclude with recommendations for improving HCC research in the context of trauma/PTSD in order to answer the remaining open questions.


Original languageEnglish
JournalCurrent neuropharmacology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 Aug 2023

External IDs

ORCID /0000-0002-1171-7133/work/149798563
Mendeley b03c0593-6c53-369a-967f-db989edfd117