Transgenerational transmission of cortisol and PTSD risk

Rachel Yehuda, Linda M. Bierer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

225 Scopus citations


Parental posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appears to be a relevant risk factor for the development of PTSD, as evidenced by a greater prevalence of PTSD, but not trauma exposure, in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors with PTSD, compared to children of Holocaust-exposed parents without PTSD. This paper summarizes recent neuroendocrine studies in offspring of parents with PTSD. Offspring of trauma survivors with PTSD show significantly lower 24-h mean urinary cortisol excretion and salivary cortisol levels as well as enhanced plasma cortisol suppression in response to low dose dexamethasone administration than offspring of survivors without PTSD. In all cases, neuroendocrine measures were negatively correlated with severity of parental PTSD symptoms, even after controlling for PTSD and even other symptoms in offspring. Though the majority of our work has focused on adult offspring of Holocaust survivors, recent observations in infants born to mothers who were pregnant on 9/11 demonstrate that low cortisol in relation to parental PTSD appears to be present early in the course of development and may be influenced by in utero factors such as glucocorticoid programming. Since low cortisol levels are particularly associated with the presence of maternal PTSD the findings suggest the involvement of epigenetic mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationStress Hormones and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Basic Studies and Clinical Perspectives
EditorsRonlad Kloet, Melly Oitzl, Eric Vermetten
Number of pages15
StatePublished - 2007

Publication series

NameProgress in Brain Research
ISSN (Print)0079-6123


  • cortisol
  • epigenetics
  • glucocorticoid programming
  • intergenerational effects
  • posttraumatic stress disorder
  • risk factors


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