HPA axis genes, and their interaction with childhood maltreatment, are related to cortisol levels and stress-related phenotypes

Lotte Gerritsen, Yuri Milaneschi, Christiaan H. Vinkers, Albert M. Van Hemert, Laura Van Velzen, Lianne Schmaal, Brenda W.J.H. Penninx

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65 Citations (Scopus)


Stress responses are controlled by the hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA)-axis and maladaptive stress responses are associated with the onset and maintenance of stress-related disorders such as major depressive disorder (MDD). Genes that play a role in the HPA-axis regulation may likely contribute to the relation between relevant neurobiological substrates and stress-related disorders. Therefore, we performed gene-wide analyses for 30 a priori literature-based genes involved in HPA-axis regulation in 2014 subjects (34% male; mean age: 42.5) to study the relations with lifetime MDD diagnosis, cortisol awakening response, and dexamethasone suppression test (DST) levels (subsample N= 1472) and hippocampal and amygdala volume (3T MR images; subsample N=225). Additionally, gene by childhood maltreatment (CM) interactions were investigated. Gene-wide significant results were found for dexamethasone suppression (CYP11A1, CYP17A1, POU1F1, AKR1D1), hippocampal volume (CYP17A1, CYP11A1, HSD3B2, PROP1, AVPRA1, SRD5A1), amygdala volume (POMC, CRH, HSD3B2), and lifetime MDD diagnosis (FKBP5 and CRH), all permutation p-valueso0.05. Interactions with CM were found for several genes; the strongest interactions were found for NR3C2, where the minor allele of SNP rs17581262 was related to smaller hippocampal volume, smaller amygdala volume, higher DST levels, and higher odds of MDD diagnosis only in participants with CM. As hypothesized, several HPA-axis genes are associated with stress-related endophenotypes including cortisol response and reduced brain volumes. Furthermore, we found a pleiotropic interaction between CM and the mineralocorticoid receptor gene, suggesting that this gene plays an important moderating role in stress and stress-related disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2446-2455
Number of pages10
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2017


  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child Abuse/trends
  • Endophenotypes/metabolism
  • Female
  • Genome-Wide Association Study/methods
  • Hippocampus/diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone/metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System/diagnostic imaging
  • Life Change Events
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging/methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Phenotype
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System/diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological/diagnostic imaging

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