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Identification of specific risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) versus depression after trauma has been challenging, in part due to the high comorbidity of these disorders. As exposure to trauma triggers activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis, examining atypical stress responses via HPA-axis hormones, namely cortisol, may help in the delineation of these disorders. Indeed, extant research demonstrates that, following stress, individuals with chronic PTSD exhibit hypocortisolism (e.g., lower cortisol response than controls), while those with chronic depression exhibit hypercortisolism (e.g., higher response than controls). Less is known about the role of cortisol and these seemingly disparate profiles immediately following traumatic injury as well as whether cortisol can be used as a predictor of future development of PTSD versus depression symptoms. In this study cortisol was measured blood from 172 traumatic injury survivors during hospitalization (on average 2.5 days post-injury). PTSD and depression severity were assessed from Clinician Assessed PTSD Scale (CAPS-5) six-eight months later using a two-factor dimensional approach that measures trauma-specific symptoms of PTSD versus dysphoria (akin to depression). Cluster analysis was used to group individuals based on post-injury cortisol, PTSD, and dysphoria. Results demonstrated that trauma survivors who only developed symptoms of dysphoria at six months (with minimal symptoms of PTSD) were differentiated by high post-injury cortisol compared to other groups. By contrast, individuals who developed symptoms of both PTSD and dysphoria were differentiated by low post-injury cortisol and most severe symptoms of PTSD. Findings provide support for the presence of subgroups of trauma survivors defined, in part, by post-trauma cortisol.


Accepted version. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Vol. 135 (January 2022): 105450. DOI. © 2022 Elsevier. Used with permission.

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