Hair Cortisol in Twins: Heritability and Genetic Overlap with Psychological Variables and Stress-System Genes

Liz Rietschel, Fabian Streit, Gu Zhu, Kerrie McAloney, Josef Frank, Baptiste Couvy-Duchesne, Stephanie H Witt, Tina M Binz, John McGrath, Ian B Hickie, Narelle K Hansell, Margaret J Wright, Nathan A Gillespie, Andreas J Forstner, Thomas G Schulze, Stefan Wüst, Markus M Nöthen, Markus R Baumgartner, Brian R Walker, Andrew A CrawfordLucía Colodro-Conde, Sarah E Medland, Nicholas G Martin, Marcella Rietschel, CORtisolNETwork (CORNET) Consortium, A. Abdellaoui, Eco de Geus, J.J. Hottenga, H. Mbarek, C.M. Middeldorp, Gonneke Willemsen, D.I. Boomsma

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article number15351
Pages (from-to)15351
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Nov 2017


The authors thank the participants for their cooperation and samples. We are grateful to Natalie Garden and Reshika Chand for data collection and to Kerrie McAloney for study coordination. We thank Alisha Hall and Christine Schmäl for their critical reading of, and suggestions for, the manuscript. GWAS results for calculating neuroticism polygenic risk scores were provided by the UK Biobank. BCD is supported by a University of Queensland International scholarship. LCC is supported by a QIMR Berghofer fellowship. The CORtisol NETwork Consortium was funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Government (grant CZB-4–733) and the British Heart Foundation (grant RG11/4/28734). Andrew Crawford is funded by the Welcome Trust (Senior Investigator Award to BR Walker; 107049/Z/15/Z). Funding for the collection of twin hair samples was provided by Australian NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council (AU)) grants to NGM (APP1049911) and to MJW (APP1009064). Hair cortisol assays were funded by a grant to MR from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), through the Integrated Network IntegraMent (Integrated Understanding of Causes and Mechanisms in Mental Disorders, grant BMBF01ZX1314G, BMBF01ZX1614G), under the auspices of the e:Med Programme.

FundersFunder number
University of Queensland International
National Science Foundation1049911
Wellcome Trust107049/Z/15/Z
Scottish GovernmentCZB-4–733
Medical Research CouncilMR/L023784/2, MR/L010305/1, MR/P005748/1
British Heart FoundationRG11/4/28734
National Health and Medical Research CouncilAPP1049911, APP1009064
Bundesministerium für Bildung und ForschungBMBF01ZX1314G, BMBF01ZX1614G


    • Journal Article

    Cohort Studies

    • Netherlands Twin Register (NTR)


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