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Altered Responsiveness Of The Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis And The Sympathetic Adrenomedullary System To Stress In Patients With Atopic Dermatitis

Angelika Buske-Kirschbaum, Andrea Geiben, Heike Höllig, Ellen Morschhäuser, Dirk Hellhammer

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A growing number of animal data strongly suggest that a hyporeactive hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis may be pathologically significant by increasing the susceptibility to chronic inflammation. Following this line of evidence, the specific goal of the present study was to investigate the HPA axis in patients with atopic dermatitis (AD), a chronic allergic inflammatory disease. In addition, the sympathetic adrenomedullary (SAM) system as a second potent immunoregulatory and anti-inflammatory stress-response system has been examined. AD patients (n = 36) and nonatopic control subjects (n = 37) were exposed to a standardized laboratory stressor consisting of a free speech and mental arithmetic task in front of an audience. Cortisol, ACTH, and catecholamine concentrations were assessed before and after the stressor. To investigate feedback sensitivity of the HPA axis, a low dose (0.5 mg) dexamethasone suppression test was also performed. AD patients showed significantly attenuated cortisol and ACTH responses to the stressor, whereas catecholamine levels were significantly elevated in atopic patients. No difference between the experimental groups was found in basal cortisol and ACTH concentrations, whereas basal catecholamine levels were significantly elevated. Analysis of cortisol levels after dexamethasone treatment suggested an intact feedback sensitivity in AD sufferers at the pituitary level. The present findings suggest that patients with AD demonstrate a blunted HPA axis responsiveness with a concurrent overreactivity of the SAM system to psychosocial stress. Considering the important immunoregulatory role of the HPA axis and the SAM system, especially under stressful conditions, an aberrant responsiveness of these neuroendocrine systems may increase the susceptibility to (allergic) inflammation and may be one psychobiological mechanism of stress-related aggravation of the disease.