Associations between hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis function and facial emotion processing in depressed and control participants



Aim:  The current study examined the relation between facial emotion processing accuracy and an aspect of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis function in 64 inpatients with major depression and 49 healthy controls over a 2-week period.

Methods:  The Dexamethasone Suppression Test and a Facial Expression Recognition Task were completed at baseline and 10–14 days after baseline. Treatment response was determined 6 weeks after baseline by change in the Montgomery–Asberg Depression Rating Scale.

Results:  Increased cortisol response to dexamethasone was significantly correlated with reduced ability to recognize facial expressions of anger, sadness and disgust within the total sample, but these correlations did not remain significant at 10–14 days. Surprisingly, cortisol response to dexamethasone was comparable in acutely depressed inpatients and healthy controls, and did not change over time in relation to treatment response.

Conclusion:  The study findings provide preliminary evidence that hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis functioning and processing threat-related facial expressions are related, perhaps through involvement of the amygdala.