Modeling cortisol dynamics in the neuro endocrine axis distinguishes normal, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in humans


Cortisol, secreted in the adrenal cortex in response to stress, is an informative biomarker that distinguishes anxiety disorders such as major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from normal subjects. Yehuda et al. proposed a hypothesis that, in humans, the hypersensitive hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is responsible for the occurrence of differing levels of cortisol in anxiety disorders. Specifically, PTSD subjects have lower cortisol levels during the late subjective night in comparison to normal subjects, and this was assumed to occur due to strong negative feedback loops in the HPA axis. In the present work, to address this hypothesis, we modeled the cortisol dynamics using nonlinear ordinary differential equations and estimated the kinetic parameters of the model to fit the experimental data of three categories, namely, normal, depressed, and PTSD human subjects. We concatenated the subjects (n = 3) in each category and created a model subject (n = 1) without considering the patient-to-patient variability in each case. The parameters of the model for the three categories were simultaneously obtained through global optimization. Bifurcation analysis carried out with the optimized parameters exhibited two supercritical Hopf points and, for the choice of parameters, the oscillations were found to be circadian in nature. The fitted kinetic parameters indicate that PTSD subjects have a strong negative feedback loop and, as a result, the predicted oscillating cortisol levels are extremely low at the nadir in contrast to normal subjects, albeit within the endocrinologic range. We also simulated the phenotypes for each of the categories and, as observed in the clinical data of PTSD patients, the simulated cortisol levels are consistently low at the nadir, and correspondingly the negative feedback was found to be extremely strong. These results from the model support the hypothesis that high stress intensity and strong negative feedback loop may cause hypersensitive neuro-endocrine axis that results in hypocortisolemia in PTSD.

ICB Affiliated Authors

K. Sriram, M. Rodriguez-Fernandez, and F. Doyle
Peer-Reviewed Article
PLoS Computational Biology