Circulating cell-free mitochondrial DNA levels and glucocorticoid sensitivity in a cohort of male veterans with and without combat-related PTSD

Zachary N. Blalock, Gwyneth W.Y. Wu, Daniel Lindqvist, Caroline Trumpff, Janine D. Flory, Jue Lin, Victor I. Reus, Ryan Rampersaud, Rasha Hammamieh, Aarti Gautam, Kerry J. Ressler, Ruoting Yang, Seid Muhie, Bernie J. Daigle, Linda M. Bierer, Leroy Hood, Kai Wang, Inyoul Lee, Kelsey R. Dean, Pramod R. SomvanshiFrancis J. Doyle, Charles R. Marmar, Marti Jett, Rachel Yehuda, Owen M. Wolkowitz, Synthia H. Mellon

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Circulating cell-free mitochondrial DNA (ccf-mtDNA) is a biomarker of cellular injury or cellular stress and is a potential novel biomarker of psychological stress and of various brain, somatic, and psychiatric disorders. No studies have yet analyzed ccf-mtDNA levels in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), despite evidence of mitochondrial dysfunction in this condition. In the current study, we compared plasma ccf-mtDNA levels in combat trauma-exposed male veterans with PTSD (n = 111) with those who did not develop PTSD (n = 121) and also investigated the relationship between ccf mt-DNA levels and glucocorticoid sensitivity. In unadjusted analyses, ccf-mtDNA levels did not differ significantly between the PTSD and non-PTSD groups (t = 1.312, p = 0.191, Cohen’s d = 0.172). In a sensitivity analysis excluding participants with diabetes and those using antidepressant medication and controlling for age, the PTSD group had lower ccf-mtDNA levels than did the non-PTSD group (F(1, 179) = 5.971, p = 0.016, partial η 2 = 0.033). Across the entire sample, ccf-mtDNA levels were negatively correlated with post-dexamethasone adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) decline (r = −0.171, p = 0.020) and cortisol decline (r = −0.149, p = 0.034) (viz., greater ACTH and cortisol suppression was associated with lower ccf-mtDNA levels) both with and without controlling for age, antidepressant status and diabetes status. Ccf-mtDNA levels were also significantly positively associated with IC50-DEX (the concentration of dexamethasone at which 50% of lysozyme activity is inhibited), a measure of lymphocyte glucocorticoid sensitivity, after controlling for age, antidepressant status, and diabetes status (β = 0.142, p = 0.038), suggesting that increased lymphocyte glucocorticoid sensitivity is associated with lower ccf-mtDNA levels. Although no overall group differences were found in unadjusted analyses, excluding subjects with diabetes and those taking antidepressants, which may affect ccf-mtDNA levels, as well as controlling for age, revealed decreased ccf-mtDNA levels in PTSD. In both adjusted and unadjusted analyses, low ccf-mtDNA levels were associated with relatively increased glucocorticoid sensitivity, often reported in PTSD, suggesting a link between mitochondrial and glucocorticoid-related abnormalities in PTSD.

Original languageEnglish
Article number22
JournalTranslational Psychiatry
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2024


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