Summary cortisol reactivity indicators: Interrelations and meaning
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Research on the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis has involved a proliferation of cortisol indices. We surveyed recently published HPA-related articles and identified 15 such indices. We sought to clarify their biometric properties, specifically, how they interrelate and what they mean, because such information is rarely offered in the articles themselves. In the present article, the primary samples consist of community mothers and their infants (N = 297), who participated in two challenges, the Toy Frustration Paradigm and the Strange Situation Procedure. We sought to cross-validate findings from each of these samples against the other, and also against a clinically depressed sample (N = 48) and a sample of healthy older adults (N = 51) who participated in the Trier Social Stress Test. Cortisol was collected from all participants once before and twice after the challenges. These heterogenous samples were chosen to obtain the greatest possible range in cortisol levels and stress response regulation. Using these data, we computed the 15 summary cortisol indices identified in our literature survey. We assessed inter-relations amongst indices and determined their underlying dimensions via principal component analysis (PCA). The PCAs consistently extracted two components, accounting for 79%-93% of the variance. These components represent "total cortisol production" and "change in cortisol levels." The components were highly congruent across challenge, time, and sample. High variable loadings and explained factor variance suggest that all indices represent their underlying dimensions very well. Thus the abundance of summary cortisol indices currently represented in the literature appears superfluous.