Stress and dementia: The role of the hypothalamic-pituary-adrenal axis

Flavia Magri, Luca Cravello, Luca Barili, Serena Sarra, Wilma Cinchetti, Fabrizio Salmoiraghi, Giuliana Micale, Ettore Ferrari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Hippocampus plays a crucial role in learning and memory and, in spite of its remarkable plasticity, it is also particularly sensitive to stress hormones due to its high concentration of corticosteroid receptors. Indeed, adrenal steroids modulate hippocampal plasticity, acting on excitability and long term potentiation or depression. By a chronobiological approach, we studied the cortisol and DHEAS secretion in clinically healthy old subjects and in age-matched demented patients, including both the degenerative and the vascular type. When compared to young controls, both clinically healthy elderly subjects and demented patients, particularly those with AD, had significantly higher cortisol levels at night time, i.e. at the moment of the maximal sensitivity of HPA axis to stimulatory or inhibitory inputs. At the same time, a clear age- and disease-dependent reduction of DHEAS secretion was found. Thus the cortisol to DHEAS molar ratio was significantly higher in healthy old subjects, and even more in demented patients, when compared to young controls, and significantly linked to both age and cognitive impairment. Finally, the quantitative and qualitative changes of the adrenal secretory pattern were significantly correlated with the decline of hippocampal volumes, measured by MRI. In conclusion, several lines of evidence deal with a pathogenetic role of stress hormones in the occurrence and progression of cognitive disorders in elderly subjects. The consequent hippocampal neuronal impairment may in turn be responsible for the continuous activation of HPA axis and the increased hypothalamic expression of vasopressin and corticotropin releasing hormone.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)167-170
Number of pages4
JournalAging clinical and experimental research
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2006


  • Cortisol
  • Hippocampus
  • Senile dementia
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ageing


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