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Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis hyperactivity, associated with increased pituitary volume, may mediate observed alterations in stress reactivity in patients with psychotic disorder. We examined the association between pituitary volume, real-life stress reactivity and genetic liability for psychotic disorder.
Pituitary volumes were derived from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of 20 patients with psychotic disorder, 37 non-psychotic siblings of these patients, and 32 controls. The Experience Sampling Method (ESM) was used to measure emotional stress reactivity [changes in negative affect (NA) associated with daily life stress] in the three groups, and biological stress reactivity (changes in cortisol associated with daily life stress) in siblings and controls. Interactions between group, stress and pituitary volume in models of NA and cortisol were examined.
Groups did not differ in pituitary volume. Patients showed significantly higher emotional stress reactivity than siblings and controls. In addition, emotional stress reactivity increased with increasing pituitary volume to a greater degree in patients than in controls and siblings. Siblings had higher cortisol levels than controls but did not show increased cortisol reactivity to stress. There was no interaction between pituitary volume, stress and group in the model of cortisol.
Higher pituitary volume was associated with increased emotional stress reactivity in patients with psychotic disorder, siblings and controls. The association was significantly stronger in the patient group, suggesting a process of progressive sensitization mediating clinical outcome.
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