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Blunted neuroendocrine responses linking depressive symptoms and ECG-left ventricular hypertrophy in black Africans

the SABPA study

Mashele, Nyikoa; Malan, Leonéa; Van Rooyen, Johannes M.a; Harvey, Brian H.b; Potgieter, Johan C.c; Hamer, Marka,d

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Cardiovascular Endocrinology: June 2014 - Volume 3 - Issue 2 - p 59-65
doi: 10.1097/XCE.0000000000000014
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There is growing awareness of the impact of psychosocial stressors, such as urbanization, on the mental and physical health of black South Africans (black Africans). Chronic psychosocial stressors constitute a burden on the ability of the brain to adapt to stress and to initiate the recovery process, especially in susceptible individuals. The neuroendocrine responses are central to how the body copes with stress and recovers from it 1,2. Inability to properly regulate aspects of these responses has been proposed as an essential factor in the pathophysiology of various stress-related disorders, including depression 3. Indeed, evidence from the literature indicates that depression is linked to alterations in neuroendocrine responses to mental stress, more specifically alterations in cortisol and norepinephrine responses, which can be related to increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) 2,4–7. Depression has been associated with increases in norepinephrine responses to stress 8. A recent study by Hamer and Malan 6 supported the link between depressive symptoms, norepinephrine responses and metabolic syndrome in black Africans 6. There remains no clear-cut nor generally accepted model for cortisol responses in depression, as both blunted and increased cortisol activity have previously been noted 5,9–11. To our knowledge, no study has yet attempted to investigate the association between depressive symptoms, neuroendocrine responses and increased cardiovascular risk [left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH)] in black Africans.

LVH is a marker of cardiac structural abnormality and has previously been linked to depressive symptoms in urban black Africans 12. Examining the role of the neuroendocrine responses in the above-mentioned association is of importance because of the high prevalence of depressive symptoms and emerging burden of CVD in this population group 6,13. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine the association between depressive symptoms, neuroendocrine responses [represented by salivary cortisol and 3-methoxy-phenylglycol (MHPG)] and ECG-LVH in urban black Africans.

Materials and methods

Study design and participants

Participants in this study were recruited as part of the Sympathetic Activity and Ambulatory Blood Pressure in Africans (SABPA) study. The SABPA study was a cross-sectional, multidisciplinary, target population study conducted between February 2008 and May 2009. For the purpose of this study, 200 urban black African teachers working in the Dr Kenneth Kaunda Education district, North West Province, South Africa, were invited to participate. The choice of this selection was based on the need to obtain a homogeneous sample from a similar socioeconomic class. All participants between the ages of 25 and 60 years were invited to participate. The study procedures are described elsewhere 6. Exclusion criteria for this study sample were pregnancy, lactation, use of α and β blockers, psychotropic substance users, ear temperature greater than 37°C, and individuals who had been vaccinated or had donated blood in the 3 months before participating. For the purpose of our study we additionally excluded participants who were HIV positive (N=19) and statin users (N=2). The total sample comprised 179 participants.

The ethical clearance for this study was granted by the Ethics Committee of North-West University (0003607S6), in accordance with the principles outlined by the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki 1975 (revised 2008). All participants signed an informed consent form before data collection commenced. Assistance was offered to participants who requested information in their native language.

Clinical assessment procedure

Each morning of the working week, four participants were fitted with a British Hypertension Society-validated ambulatory blood pressure (ABPM) monitoring device and two-lead ECG (Meditech CE120; Cardiotens, Budapest, Hungary). The ABPM device was fitted to the participant’s nondominant arm and programmed to take blood pressure (BP) measurements at 30-min intervals during the day (08:00–22:00 h) and 60-min intervals during the night (22:00–06:00 h) accompanied by a sequential recording of the ECG strips every 5 min for 20 s 14. The successful mean inflation rate in this sample was 82.7% (±3.8%). A 12-lead ECG (PC 1200, software version 5.030; NORAV Medical Ltd, Kiryat Bialik, Israel) device was used to determine LVH, using strip leads RaVL+SV3 in the calculation of a sex-specific formula, the Cornell product: sum of the leads (RaVL+SV3)×QRS>244 mV ms 15,16. Higher Cornell product values imply worse LVH 15,16.

The participants were also fitted with an Actical omnidirectional accelerometer monitor (Mini Mitter, Bend, Oregon, USA; Montréal, Québec, Canada) to measure physical activity during the ABPM period. Participants were requested to continue with normal daily activities, recording any abnormalities such as visual disturbances, headache, nausea, fainting, palpitations and stress on their ambulatory diary charts.

At ∼16:40 h the participants were transported to the Metabolic Unit Research Facility of North-West University (research unit for human studies) and were familiarized with the available facilities and the experimental setup, to minimize the ‘white-coat effect’ 17. This was followed by the completion of a collection of psychosocial questionnaires under the supervision of a registered clinical psychologist. The participants then received a standardized dinner and were advised to retire for the night at ∼22:00 h, fasting overnight.

At 06:00 h the following morning, the ABPM and the Actical devices were removed. The participants’ anthropometric measurements were then obtained followed by the resting 12-lead ECG and psychophysiological stress testing while the participants were in a semirecumbent position. Fasting venous blood and saliva samples were obtained. Saliva samples were collected using the Sarstedt salivette device (Sarstedt, Nümbrecht, Germany), which involves placing a small cotton roll in the mouth of the participant for several minutes. Participants stayed overnight at the Metabolic Unit, and refrained from consuming alcohol and caffeine, smoking and exercising 8 h before data collection. In addition, they were advised to take caution with their dental hygiene the previous night to prevent bleeding gums during sampling the following morning. Participants were requested not to brush their teeth before data sampling 18.

Mental stress testing

The Stroop mental stress task has been used extensively in psychophysiological stress testing. The task was administered over a 1-min period followed by a 30-min recovery, using cards. The participants were required to identify the colours of the colour word cards in contrasting colours of ink under time pressure. As a motivation to complete the task, each participant received a monetary incentive of ∼1 euro with the completion of every column. Saliva samples were collected at baseline and 30 min post-task for detection of cortisol and MHPG. Salivary MHPG has been shown to be a reliable indicator of sympathetic activity during acute mental stress, with optimum responses occurring 30 min poststress task 4.

Depressive symptoms were assessed with the use of the nine-item self-administered Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9). The PHQ-9 is a measure of depressive symptom severity and has been validated in various ethnic groups including sub-Saharan Africans 19–21. The questionnaire is designed for use in primary healthcare settings adapting diagnostic criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. (DSM-IV). Each item of the PHQ-9 evaluates the presence of one of the nine DSM-IV criteria of major depression 19. In the current study, the Cronbach α-reliability index for the total PHQ-9 score was 0.81. Items on the questionnaire are scored to reflect the frequency of symptom occurrence during the prior 2 weeks on a scale of 0–3, with 0 reflecting ‘not at all’ and 3 ‘nearly every day’, thus providing a continuous score between 0 and 27 19. We used the recommended and established PHQ-9 cutoff point of greater than 10 indicating the presence of depressive symptoms, stratifying the study sample into participants with and without depressive symptoms 20.

Anthropometric measurements

Anthropometric data were standardized and taken in triplicate to the nearest 0.1 cm. Body weight and height measurements were taken and used to calculate BMI (kg/m2). Waist circumference was measured with a metal tape at the midpoint between the lower costal border and the iliac crest perpendicular to the long axis of the trunk 22. Intraobserver and interobserver variability were less than 10%.

Biochemical sampling and analyses

Fasting blood samples were handled and prepared according to standardized methods, and frozen at −80°C until analysis. Fasting sodium fluoride (glucose) and serum samples for triglycerides, HDL-cholesterol, gamma glutamyl transferase (γ-GT) and cotinine were analysed using the sequential multiple analyser computer (Konelab 20i; Thermo Scientific, Vantaa, Finland) and by immunoassay (Integra 400; Roche, Basel, Switzerland). As a marker of alcohol abuse, γ-GT was measured 23, whereas serum cotinine levels were measured as a marker of smoking status, with values above 14.99 μg/l considered an indication of exposure to first- or second-hand smoking 24. The intracoefficient and intercoefficients of variation for all assays were below 10%.

Cortisol levels were determined from salivary samples, which were obtained before 09:00 h. To avoid the cortisol awakening response, resting saliva samples were collected 45 min after awakening 25. Cortisol levels were determined using a high-sensitivity enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay. Cortisol showed intracoefficient and intercoefficients of variation of 7.7 and 9.8%, respectively. The major metabolite of norepinephrine, MHPG, closely reflects plasma metabolite levels and was analysed using high-performance liquid chromatography coupled to an electrochemical detector 26,27. The interday and intraday coefficients of variation for all assays were less than 10%.

Statistical analysis

Stress responses were calculated with the following formula as changes from baseline (delta, Δ): X stressor−X resting. All data were analysed using the software package STATISTICA 10 (StatSoft Inc., Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA; 2010). γ-GT levels were logarithmically transformed to normalize distribution. Differences in characteristics of participants in relation to depressive symptoms were analysed using t tests (mean±SD) to examine continuous variables and χ2 to calculate prevalence (%). A single two-way analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was applied to assess interaction between the main effects (depressive symptoms×cortisol median split response), independent of a-priori covariates (age, smoking prevalence, resting cortisol and MHPG levels). Subsequent one-way ANCOVA analyses followed where cardiovascular and biochemical data of low and high cortisol responses were compared using least squared means.

Multiple unadjusted and adjusted regression analyses were computed to identify independent predictors of ECG-LVH in the participants with and without depressive symptoms in the low- and high-cortisol response groups. In forward stepwise regression analyses, ECG-LVH was the dependent predictor and the following independent predictors were included: age, sex, smoking prevalence, body surface area, resting cortisol and MHPG levels, MPHG responses and 24 h systolic BP. Significance was noted as a P-value of up to 0.05 and trend for P as less than 0.1.

Sensitivity analyses

We computed sensitivity analyses on the relationship between dipping status, depressive symptoms and cortisol levels in separate sex groups.


The participant sample is described in Table 1. Africans with depressive symptoms were more likely to smoke (P=0.05), although no other differences in baseline characteristics were observed. Both groups displayed similar resting MHPG and cortisol levels.

Table 1
Table 1:
Descriptive statistics of the study sample (mean±SD)

Mental stress responses

Two-way ANCOVAs revealed significant interaction on main effects (depressive symptoms×cortisol median split responses) for ECG-LVH [F(1,179)=5.86; P=0.02] with a trend for systolic BP [F(1,179)=2.96; P=0.09] and diastolic BP [F(1,179)=3.18; P=0.08]. Therefore, our group was stratified into with depressive symptoms and without, as well as median split cortisol responses using a cutoff point of greater than 1.5 ng/l. As shown in Table 2, the Africans with depressive symptoms and low cortisol responses demonstrated a significantly blunted MHPG response (P=0.004) in comparison with the high-cortisol response group with lower triglyceride levels (P=0.04). Interestingly, Africans without depressive symptoms and high cortisol responses displayed significantly higher ECG-LVH (P=0.01) and a trend for elevated systolic (P=0.08) and diastolic BP (P=0.06).

Table 2
Table 2:
Adjusted means (±95% CI): comparing salivary stress cortisol (low vs. high) in Africans with/without depressive symptoms, independent of covariates (age, smoking prevalence)

As shown in Fig. 1, cortisol responses at rest and responses during acute mental stress Stroop test were compared in Africans with depressive and without, independent of covariates. A blunted cortisol response was revealed in Africans displaying depressive symptoms (P=0.02).

Fig. 1
Fig. 1:
Comparing adjusted cortisol median split responses at rest (cutoff point>1.5 ng/ml) and responses during acute mental stress Stroop test in Africans with depressive symptoms versus Africans without depressive symptoms. Covariates included age and smoking prevalence. Stroop responses were adjusted for baseline levels.

Predictors of ECG-left ventricular hypertrophy

In forward stepwise regression analysis models (Table 3), blunted MHPG acute mental stress responses were positively associated with ECG-LVH in Africans with depressive symptoms and with low cortisol stress responses [adjusted R2=0.20; β=0.92 (95% confidence interval 0.74, 1.10); P≤0.02].

Table 3
Table 3:
Forward stepwise regression analyses to demonstrate associations between ECG-left ventricular hypertrophy and potential independent predictors in Africans with/without depressive symptoms and low/high cortisol responses

No associations existed between MHPG responses and ECG-LVH in participants without depressive symptoms.

Sensitivity analyses

No relationship existed between dipping status, depressive symptoms and cortisol levels in separate sex groups.


Possible associations were assessed between neuroendocrine acute mental stress responses (represented by salivary MHPG and cortisol), depressive symptoms and ECG-LVH (a marker of structural left ventricular wall abnormalities) in urban black Africans. To our knowledge, this is the first well-controlled study focusing on the contribution of selected stress responses and depression to cardiovascular risk in black Africans. Main findings demonstrated no direct association between depressive symptoms and resting cortisol levels. However, blunted neuroendocrine responses linked depressive symptoms and ECG-LVH in black Africans. When coupled to their hypertensive status, these vasoconstrictive agent responses may underpin the increased long-term depression and vascular disease risk in urban Africans.

Earlier work demonstrated elevated salivary MHPG levels in individuals with greater depressive symptoms 4,29. We could not establish similar significant findings. Conversely, salivary MHPG is a major metabolite of norepinephrine that closely resembles plasma levels and was investigated in this African target population 27. The positive association revealed between salivary MHPG stress responses and depressive symptoms may be related to psychosocial stressors 30 such as urbanization, demonstrating a challenged nervous system and heightened sympathetic activity. Findings are supported by other studies where urbanization has been associated with increased hypertension prevalence, vascular responsiveness and myocardial ischaemic risk in this ethnic group 31–33.

A secondary aim of the study was to link depressive symptoms to neuroendocrine responses and potential target organ damage. Depressive symptoms may act via attenuation of norepinephrine responses to stress, potentially contributing to allostatic load, which can predispose Africans to structural LVH changes 34,35. Indeed, depressed and nondepressed individuals did not show a difference with respect to basal cortisol and MHPG levels, however, blunted salivary stress MHPG and cortisol responses were apparent in individuals with depressive symptoms after exposure to the Stroop test. This could imply that the presence of depressive symptoms sensitizes the individual to stress and the subsequent development of vascular disease and/or other lifestyle illnesses.

We were able to establish MHPG responses as a predictor of ECG-LVH in these participants. As cortisol has a permissive effect on norepinephrine functioning, the vasoconstrictive effect of norepinephrine secretion will enhance higher α-adrenergic vascular responsiveness and a hyperkinetic state. Indeed, a hypertension prevalence of 71.67% may support the notion of a shift from central cardiac (β-adrenergic) to vascular (α-adrenergic) BP responses 31, increasing CVD risk.

In a previous study we demonstrated an association between systolic BP and ECG-LVH in African men with depression 12. We support these findings as we demonstrated that blunted cortisol and MHPG responses, acting as vasoconstrictive agents, may induce structural wall abnormalities by increasing preload and afterload to the heart 31. Depression may enforce these changes and augment cardiovascular morbidity. Blunted cortisol responses to laboratory and naturalistic psychosocial stressors have been demonstrated in both clinical and subclinical depression 36,37. For instance, Burke et al.5 demonstrated that women with high depressive symptoms exhibited blunted cortisol stress responses to a naturalistic stressor 5. This response is possibly not unexpected as depression is typically associated with elevated cortisol, while at the same time demonstrating a blunted response to dexamethasone challenge 1,38,39. However, it could be speculated that as depression is a constant state of perceived stress, further exposure to a challenging urban environment or psychosocial stress may result in habituation of the neuroendocrine pathways 40. Alternatively, although the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal-axis in depression is moderately activated, possibly due to the initial (primary) hippocampal degeneration in this condition, the ensuing structural changes are likely to illicit a maladaptive cortisol response as described here 38. Chronic mental or psychosocial stress triggers sympathetic hyperactivity resulting in increased release of catecholamine and ultimately depletion, a process that is abrogated by cortisol 9. Unmitigated increases in cortisol, as a result of maladaptive responses to stress, lead to the dysregulation of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal-axis activity resulting in the above-described patterns of cortisol release, eventually leading to the development of an anxiety and/or mood disorder 9,40. The failure to appropriately regulate aspects of this stress axis represents a crucial factor in the pathophysiology of various stress-related disorders 3.

Therefore, our findings suggest that Africans with depressive symptoms and blunted MHPG-cortisol responses are at a greater risk for vascular disease and stress-related disorders. Subsequently, various maladaptive neurobiological and behavioural changes ensue that lay the foundation for altered metabolic and redox function, as has recently been described in this population, which in turn drive the increased risk for cardiovascular illness 41.

Certain strengths and limitations of this study should be acknowledged. The nature of the study design and the uniqueness of the study sample are noteworthy strengths, and this is the first well-controlled study in sub-Saharan Africa examining the role of neuroendocrine responses and depressive symptoms and their association with cardiovascular health. The limitations of our study include the inability to make inferences about causality, because of the cross-sectional nature of the study. Prospective data are needed to address this issue. Furthermore, we used a self-report questionnaire to assess depressive symptoms, which may introduce reporting biases. The study sample consists only of black Africans and it is suggested that the collectivistic nature of this population group, where most actions are reflected by group/social interaction, coupled with culture-specific manifestations of depressive symptoms may influence the interpretation of the items in the PHQ-9 42,43. However, the questionnaire is a well-established diagnostic tool that has been validated in various ethnic groups, including Africans 21.


Blunted neuroendocrine responses were linked to depressive symptoms and ECG-LVH in black Africans. When coupled to their hypertensive status, these vasoconstrictive agent responses may underpin the increased long-term depression and vascular disease risk in urban Africans. These findings may have important health implications given the emerging burden of CVD among urban black Africans and the fact that a three-fold risk of depressive symptoms has been observed in this population group in comparison with white Africans 6,13. Identifying and treating depressive symptoms in Africans may play a role in reducing stress-related cardiovascular risk in this ethnic group.


The authors thank the participants of the SABPA study for their invaluable and voluntary participation.

The Sympathetic Activity and Ambulatory Blood Pressure in Africans study is funded by North-West University, the National Research Foundation, Medical Research Council, Roche Diagnostics, South Africa and the Metabolic Syndrome Institute, France. The funders played no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis and interpretation of the data; and preparation, review or approval of the manuscript.

Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


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    Africans; cortisol; depressive symptoms; ECG-left ventricular hypertrophy; 3-methoxy-phenylglycol

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