Associations between oxytocin and vasopressin concentrations, traumatic event exposure and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms: group comparisons, correlations, and courses during an internet-based cognitive-behavioural treatment

European Journal of Psychotraumatology

Sinha Engel, Sarah Schumacher, Helen Niemeyer, Annika Kuester, Sebastian Burchert, Hannah Klusmann, Heinrich Rau, Gerd-Dieter Willmund & Christine Knaevelsrud


Background: Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is characterized by impairments in extinction learning and social behaviour, which are targeted by trauma-focused cognitive behavioural treatment (TF-CBT). The biological underpinnings of TF-CBT can be better understood by adding biomarkers to the clinical evaluation of interventions. Due to their involvement in social functioning and fear processing, oxytocin and arginine vasopressin might be informative biomarkers for TF-CBT, but to date, this has never been tested.

Objective: To differentiate the impact of traumatic event exposure and PTSD symptoms on blood oxytocin and vasopressin concentrations. Further, to describe courses of PTSD symptoms, oxytocin and vasopressin during an internet-based TF-CBT and explore interactions between these parameters.

Method: We compared oxytocin and vasopressin between three groups of active and former male service members of the German Armed Forces (n = 100): PTSD patients (n = 39), deployed healthy controls who experienced a deployment-related traumatic event (n = 33) and non-deployed healthy controls who never experienced a traumatic event (n = 28). PTSD patients underwent a 5-week internet-based TF-CBT. We correlated PTSD symptoms with oxytocin and vasopressin before treatment onset. Further, we analysed courses of PTSD symptoms, oxytocin and vasopressin from pre- to post-treatment and 3 months follow-up, as well as interactions between the three parameters.

Results: Oxytocin and vasopressin did not differ between the groups and were unrelated to PTSD symptoms. PTSD symptoms were highly stable over time, whereas the endocrine parameters were not, and they also did not change in mean. Oxytocin and vasopressin were not associated with PTSD symptoms longitudinally.

Conclusions: Mainly due to their insufficient intraindividual stability, single measurements of endogenous oxytocin and vasopressin concentrations are not informative biomarkers for TF-CBT. We discuss how the stability of these biomarkers might be increased and how they could be better related to the specific impairments targeted by TF-CBT.

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