Salivary cortisol in panic: are males more vulnerable?

OBJECTIVES: The underlying mechanisms of panic attacks (PA's) are still unclear. Theories focusing on these mechanisms differ in their description of the relationship between panic and fear. The main controversy concerns whether a PA resembles the classical flight response, or whether it is qualitatively different from fear. According to the first theory, a PA would result in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis) activation, whereas according to the second, it would not. So far, inconclusive results have been reported in studies measuring HPA-axis activity after laboratory evoked PA's. The present study was designed to assess cortisol levels following a 35% CO2 challenge in Panic Disorder (PD) patients compared to healthy volunteers as a measurement of HPA-axis activity.

DESIGN: Twenty-three PD patients and 20 healthy volunteers participated in the study. Cortisol was determined in saliva at regular intervals before and after the challenge. Furthermore, attention was paid to possible gender effects.

RESULTS: Although the 35% CO2 inhalation induced a significant increase in anxiety, no cortisol increase was found. Moreover, there was no difference between patient and control cortisol values following the 35% CO2 challenge, whereas the delta anxiety scores were far more pronounced in the patient group. Interestingly, male PD patients showed higher cortisol values.

CONCLUSIONS: This study may be in accordance with the view that PA's are not accompanied by an important HPA-axis activation. There are some indications for aberrant cortisol secretion in male PD patients. Further research needs to confirm whether male and female PD patients differ in their underlying mechanisms related to HPA-axis activity.

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