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Cortisol Responses to Naturally Occurring Psychosocial Stressors across the Psychosis Spectrum: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis: Stressor-cortisol concordance in psychosis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Alexis Cullen, Sushma Rai, Meghna Vaghani, Valeria Mondelli, Philip McGuire

Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 19 May 2020

King's Authors


Background: Individuals with established psychosis and those at high-risk for the disorder have been found to show abnormalities within the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, including elevations in basal and diurnal cortisol, but a blunted cortisol awakening response. However, the extent to which these features are associated with psychosocial stressors encountered in the natural environment (which are known to be more commonly experienced by these groups, and more distressing) is currently unclear. We therefore conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to investigate the concordance between naturally-occurring psychosocial stressors and cortisol levels in these populations.
Methods: PubMed, PsycINFO, and EMBASE were searched up to November 2019 to identify studies examining the concordance between psychosocial stressors and cortisol in healthy controls and individuals on the psychosis spectrum (patients with established psychosis and/or high-risk individuals). An overall meta-analysis (including data for all stressor-cortisol pairings), was performed to determine the degree of concordance irrespective of group status, with meta-regression employed to test whether the degree of concordance differed in established psychosis and high-risk groups compared to controls. Planned stratified analyses were then performed to examine group differences (where established psychosis and high-risk groups were combined) within individual stressor-cortisol pairings.
Results: Eighteen studies (16 datasets) were eligible for inclusion. The overall model, comprising 134 effect sizes, showed that stressors and cortisol measures were only weakly correlated [r=0.05 (95% CI: -0.00 to 0.10), p=0.059] and that neither established psychosis status [r=0.01 p=0.838] nor high-risk status [r=0.02, p=0.477] had a significant effect of the strength of correlation. In stratified analyses, significant differences between healthy controls and psychosis spectrum groups were observed for only one of the six stressor-cortisol pairings examined, where life event exposure and diurnal cortisol were positively correlated in controls [r=0.25 (95% CI: 0.01 to 0.46)], but negatively correlated in the psychosis spectrum group [r=-0.28 (95% CI: -0.49 to -0.04)].
Conclusions: Overall, we observed poor concordance between naturally-occurring psychosocial stressors and cortisol irrespective of stressor type, cortisol measure, or group status. We consider a range of methodological factors that may have obscured the ability to detect ‘true’ associations and provide recommendations for future studies in this field.

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