Salivary cortisol dynamics after mild traumatic brain injury


Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center, Advocate Aurora Research Institute


Objective: To assess mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI)-related alterations in baseline (resting) salivary cortisol and cortisol reactivity to cognitive and exercise stressors, which are frequently encountered during mTBI rehabilitation and recovery.

Setting: Persons with mTBI were recruited from a level 1 trauma center emergency department. Uninjured controls (UCs) were recruited from the community.

Participants: Participants were 37 individuals with mTBI and 24 UCs. All patients with mTBI were enrolled at 7 ± 3 days post-injury, met the American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine definition of mTBI, and had no acute intracranial findings on clinical neuroimaging (if performed).

Design: A prospective cohort study design was used. All participants provided saliva samples 10 times during each of 2 visits spaced 3 weeks apart (1 week and 1 month post-injury for the mTBI group). Each visit included baseline saliva sampling and sampling to evaluate reactivity to a cognitive stressor (Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test) and physical stressor (Buffalo Concussion Treadmill Test [BCTT]).

Main outcome measure: Natural log-transformed salivary cortisol was measured by enzyme immunoassay. Cortisol was predicted using a linear mixed-effects model by group (mTBI and UC), visit (1 week and 1 month), and saliva sample.

Results: Mean salivary cortisol was higher in the mTBI group (1.67 nmol/L [95% CI 1.42-1.72]) than in controls (1.30 nmol/L [1.12-1.47]), without an mTBI × time interaction. At 1 week, the mTBI group had greater cortisol reactivity in response to the BCTT.

Conclusions: Higher cortisol in individuals with mTBI at 1 week and 1 month post-injury extends previous findings into the subacute recovery period. Furthermore, the mTBI group demonstrated a greater cortisol response to mild-to-moderate aerobic exercise (BCTT) at 1 week post-injury. Given the increasing role of exercise in mTBI rehabilitation, further research is warranted to replicate these findings and identify the clinical implications, if any, of enhanced hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis responses to exercise in civilians with recent mTBI.

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