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Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and fibromyalgia (FM) are both highly prevalent conditions associated with extreme disability and with the development of co-morbid psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Childhood stressors have been shown to induce persistent changes in the function of biological systems potentially relevant to the pathogenesis of both CFS and FM, such as the inflammatory system and the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. In this review, we examined whether multiple forms of childhood stressors are contributing factors to the development of these disorders, and of the associated psychiatric symptoms.
Using PubMed, we identified 31 papers relevant to this narrative review. We included cohort studies and case-control studies, without any exclusion in terms of age and gender. No study characteristics or publication date restrictions were imposed.
Most studies across the literature consistently show that there is a strong association between experiences of childhood stressors and the presence of CFS and FM, with rates of CFS/FM being two- to three-fold higher in exposed than in unexposed subjects. We also found evidence for an increased risk for the development of additional symptoms, such as depression, anxiety and pain, in individuals with CFS and FM with a previous history of childhood stressors, compared with individuals with CFS/FM and no such history.
Our review confirms that exposure to childhood stressors is associated with the subsequent development of fatigue syndromes such as CFS and FM, and related symptoms. Further studies are needed to identify the mechanisms underlying these associations.
The high incidence of the metabolic syndrome in patients with psychosis is mainly attributed to antipsychotic treatment. However, it is also possible that psychological stress plays a role, inducing a chronic inflammatory process that may predispose to the development of metabolic abnormalities. We investigated the association between childhood maltreatment and inflammatory and metabolic biomarkers in subjects with first-episode psychosis and healthy controls.
Body mass index (BMI), weight and waist circumference were measured in 95 first-episode psychosis patients and 97 healthy controls. Inflammatory and metabolic markers were measured in a subsample of 28 patients and 45 controls. In all the subjects we collected information on childhood maltreatment and recent stressors.
Patients with childhood maltreatment had higher BMI [25.0 (s.e.=0.6) kg/m2] and C-reactive protein (CRP) levels [1.1 (s.e.=0.6) mg/dl] when compared with healthy controls [23.4 (s.e.=0.4) kg/m2, p=0.030 and 0.2 (s.e.=0.1) mg/dl, p=0.009, respectively]. In contrast, patients without childhood maltreatment were not significantly different from healthy controls for either BMI [24.7 (s.e.=0.6) kg/m2, p=0.07] or CRP levels [0.5 (s.e.=0.2) mg/dl, p=0.25]. After controlling for the effect of BMI, the difference in CRP levels across the three groups remained significant (F2,58=3.6, p=0.035), suggesting that the increase in inflammation was not driven by an increase in adipose tissue.
Childhood maltreatment is associated with higher BMI, and increased CRP levels, in patients with a first-episode psychosis. Further studies need to confirm the mechanisms underlying the putative causal relationship between childhood maltreatment and higher BMI, and whether this is indeed mediated by increased inflammation.
Cognitive impairment, particularly in memory and executive function, is a core feature of psychosis. Moreover, psychosis is characterized by a more prominent history of stress exposure, and by dysregulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis. In turn, stress exposure and abnormal levels of the main HPA axis hormone cortisol are associated with cognitive impairments in a variety of clinical and experimental samples; however, this association has never been examined in first-episode psychosis (FEP).
In this study, 30 FEP patients and 26 controls completed assessment of the HPA axis (cortisol awakening response and cortisol levels during the day), perceived stress, recent life events, history of childhood trauma, and cognitive function. The neuropsychological battery comprised general cognitive function, verbal and non-verbal memory, executive function, perception, visuospatial abilities, processing speed, and general knowledge.
Patients performed significantly worse on all cognitive domains compared to controls. In patients only, a more blunted cortisol awakening response (that is, more abnormal) was associated with a more severe deficit in verbal memory and processing speed. In controls only, higher levels of perceived stress and more recent life events were associated with a worse performance in executive function and perception and visuospatial abilities.
These data support a role for the HPA axis, as measured by cortisol awakening response, in modulating cognitive function in patients with psychosis; however, this association does not seem to be related to the increased exposure to psychosocial stressors described in these patients.
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