Salivary cortisol and psychopathology in adults bereaved by the september 11, 2001 terror attacks

Cynthia R. Pfeffer, Margaret Altemus, Moonseong Heo, Hong Jiang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Objective: This prospective study aimed to describe the nature and time course of HPA axis dysregulation and psychopathology among terror-bereaved spouses. Method: Twenty-three spouses bereaved from September 11, 2001 terror attacks and 22 nonbereaved spouses were compared using a psychiatric diagnostic interview (SCID), 3 days of salivary cortisol collection, and a dexamethasone suppression test. Most subjects had repeated assessments at 6 month intervals during the 2 year study. Results: After September 11, 2001, bereaved compared to nonbereaved had significantly higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; 68.1% versus 0%) and major depressive disorder (MDD; 45.5% versus 9.5%). Bereaved had significantly higher morning basal cortisol and less afternoon postdexamethasone cortisol suppression than nonbereaved. Among bereaved, those with PTSD without comorbid MDD had significantly greater afternoon postdexamethasone cortisol suppression than those without psychiatric disorders. Conclusions: Terror-related spouse death is a severe stressor associated with persistent HPA axis activation, PTSD, and MDD. However, bereaved spouses who developed PTSD and were not depressed had enhanced post-dexamethasone cortisol suppression, evidence of heightened glucocorticoid receptor sensitivity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)215-226
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Bereavement
  • Cortisol
  • MDD
  • PTSD
  • September 11

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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