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Hair cortisol in twins: Heritability and genetic overlap with psychological variables and stress-system genes

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  • Liz Rietschel
  • Fabian Streit
  • Gu Zhu
  • Kerrie McAloney
  • Josef Frank
  • Baptiste Couvy-Duchesne
  • Stephanie H Witt
  • Tina Binz
  • John J McGrath
  • Ian B. Hickie
  • Narelle K. Hansell
  • Margaret. J. Wright
  • Nathan Gillespie
  • Andreas J. Forstner
  • Thomas G. Schulze
  • Stefan Wust
  • Markus M Nöthen
  • Markus Baumgartner
  • Lucía Colodro-Conde
  • Sarah E. Medland
  • Nicholas G Martin
  • Marcella Rietschel

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Original languageEnglish
JournalScientific Reports
Early online date10 Nov 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Nov 2017


Hair cortisol concentration (HCC) is a promising measure of long-term hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity. Previous research has suggested an association between HCC and psychological variables, and initial studies of inter-individual variance in HCC have implicated genetic factors. However, whether HCC and psychological variables share genetic risk factors remains unclear. The aims of the present twin study were to: (i) assess the heritability of HCC; (ii) estimate the phenotypic and genetic correlation between HPA axis activity and the psychological variables perceived stress, depressive symptoms, and neuroticism; using formal genetic twin models and molecular genetic methods, i.e. polygenic risk scores (PRS). HCC was measured in 671 adolescents and young adults. These included 115 monozygotic and 183 dizygotic twin-pairs. For 432 subjects PRS scores for plasma cortisol, major depression, and neuroticism were calculated using data from large genome wide association studies. The twin model revealed a heritability for HCC of 72%. No significant phenotypic or genetic correlation was found between HCC and the three psychological variables of interest. PRS did not explain variance in HCC. The present data suggest that HCC is highly heritable. However, the data do not support a strong biological link between HCC and any of the investigated psychological variables.

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