Open Access Short Report

Cerebrospinal fluid cortisol levels are higher in patients with delirium versus controls

Andrew Pearson12, Annick de Vries2, Scott D Middleton12, Fiona Gillies12, Timothy O White3, Ian R Armstrong4, Ruth Andrew2, Jonathan R Seckl25 and Alasdair MJ MacLullich125*

Author Affiliations

1 Geriatric Medicine, University of Edinburgh, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 51 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh, UK

2 Endocrinology, University of Edinburgh, Queen's Medical Research Institute, 47 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh EH16 4TJ, UK

3 Department of Orthopaedics and Trauma Surgery, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 51 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh EH16 4SA, UK

4 Department of Anaesthetics, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, 51 Little France Crescent, Edinburgh EH16 4SA, UK

5 University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, UK

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BMC Research Notes 2010, 3:33  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-3-33

Published: 8 February 2010



High plasma cortisol levels can cause acute cognitive and neuropsychiatric dysfunction, and have been linked with delirium. CSF cortisol levels more closely reflect brain exposure to cortisol, but there are no studies of CSF cortisol levels in delirium. In this pilot study we acquired CSF specimens at the onset of spinal anaesthesia in patients undergoing hip fracture surgery, and compared CSF and plasma cortisol levels in delirium cases versus controls.


Delirium assessments were performed the evening before or on the morning of operation with a standard battery comprising cognitive tests, mental status assessments and the Confusion Assessment Method. CSF and plasma samples were obtained at the onset of the operation and cortisol levels measured. Twenty patients (15 female, 5 male) aged 62 - 93 years were studied. Seven patients were diagnosed with delirium. The mean ages of cases (81.4 (SD 7.2)) and controls (80.5 (SD 8.7)) were not significantly different (p = 0.88). The median (interquartile range) CSF cortisol levels were significantly higher in cases (63.9 (40.4-102.1) nmol/L) than controls (31.4 (21.7-43.3) nmol/L; Mann-Whitney U, p = 0.029). The median (interquartile range) of plasma cortisol was also significantly higher in cases (968.8 (886.2-1394.4) nmol/L, than controls (809.4 (544.0-986.4) nmol/L; Mann Whitney U, p = 0.036).


These findings support an association between higher CSF cortisol levels and delirium. This extends previous findings linking higher plasma cortisol and delirium, and suggests that more definitive studies of the relationship between cortisol levels and delirium are now required.