Hormone levels may protect against effects of stress
Sept. 1, 2004
Psychiatry Matters

High levels of the hormone dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)-S could influence a person's ability to cope with the negative effects of stress, suggests US research published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"A growing body of research has provided evidence that DHEA-S is involved in an organism's response to stress and that it may provide beneficial behavioral and neurotrophic effects," note Charles Morgan III (Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System, West Haven, Connecticut) and colleagues.

To investigate, the team measured DHEA-S levels and the ratio of DHEA-S to cortisol in blood and saliva samples from 25 military personnel with an average age of 25 years. Measurements were taken 5 days before and 30 minutes after the participants underwent stressful scenarios as part of military survival school. On both occasions, the military personnel also completed a survey that rated their symptoms of dissociation and how in touch they felt with their environment.

The stressful scenarios involved the participants being confined in a mock prisoner of war camp where they were interrogated, and experienced food and sleep depravation.

Compared with baseline, there was a significant increase in DHEA-S level in response to these stressful situations. Moreover, the ratio of DHEA-S to cortisol was found to be significantly higher in individuals who reported fewer symptoms of dissociation and exhibited superior military performance.

"These data provide prospective, empirical evidence that the DHEA-S level is increased by acute stress in healthy humans and that the DHEA-S-cortisol ratio may index the degree to which an individual is buffered against the negative effects of stress," Morgan and team write.

They conclude: "One implication of the present findings is that a low DHEA-S-cortisol ratio may be associated with vulnerability to stress-induced symptoms of dissociation.

"In the future, it may be fruitful to conduct clinical trials designed to prospectively evaluate whether augmentation of DHEA-S levels in humans, before the time of their exposure to stress, will confer a protective effect, as evidenced by diminished peritraumatic dissociation and improved cognitive performance."

Arch Gen Psychiatry 2004; 61: 819-825