The hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated during aging and even more so in dementia. Increased levels of corticosteroids may be neurotoxic. Therefore we have investigated cortisol levels in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of Alzheimer patients and controls. Ventricular postmortem CSF was collected from clinically and neuropathologically well-defined Alzheimer patients (n = 26) and control subjects (n = 21). In the group of Alzheimer patients the mean CSF total cortisol level was 83% higher than that in the controls. In presenile Alzheimer patients (< 65 years of age; n = 13) the CSF-cortisol level was 5 times higher than that of presenile controls (n = 7). In contrast, senile Alzheimer patients (n = 13) and controls of over 65 years of age (n = 14) did not show a significant difference in CSF-cortisol levels. The presence or absence of a difference in the cortisol-CSF levels in, respectively, presenile or senile Alzheimer patients as compared to controls was due to the 3.5-fold rise of CSF-cortisol in control subjects over 65 years of age as compared with controls under 65 years of age. The CSF-cortisol levels in presenile and senile Alzheimer patients were similar. No significant correlation was observed in the Alzheimer patients between age of onset of the dementia and CSF cortisol levels or duration of Alzheimer's disease and CSF cortisol levels.
The finding that in senile Alzheimer patients cortisol levels were similar to those of unaffected age-matched controls does not seem to support the cortisol neurotoxicity hypothesis. On the other hand, it should be noted that postmortem ventricular CSF cortisol levels were found to be 13–16 times higher than lumbar puncture CSF cortisol levels of ambulatory patients. This means that the ventricular CSF levels probably reflect the reaction of the HPA-axis to the process of dying rather than the basal levels of this system. The exact consequences of elevated HPA-axis activity for the human brain should be studied in more detail.