The hormone cortisol plays important roles in human circadian and stress physiology and is an interesting target for interventions. Cortisol varies not only in response to stress but also as part of a diurnal rhythm. It shows a particularly sharp increase immediately after awakening, the cortisol awakening response (CAR). Cortisol can be affected by medication, but it is less clear whether it can also be affected by learning. Animal studies have consistently shown that cortisol can be affected by pharmacological conditioning, but the results in humans have been mixed. Other studies have suggested that conditioning is also possible during sleep and that the diurnal rhythm can be conditioned, but these findings have not yet been applied to cortisol conditioning.
The objective of our study was to introduce a novel avenue for conditioning cortisol: by using the CAR as an unconditioned response and using scent conditioning while the participant is asleep. This study investigates an innovative way to study the effects of conditioning on cortisol and the diurnal rhythm, using a variety of devices and measures to make measurement possible at a distance and at unusual moments.
The study protocol takes 2 weeks and is performed from the participant’s home. Measures in week 1 are taken to reflect the CAR and waking under baseline conditions. For the first 3 nights of week 2, participants are exposed to a scent from 30 minutes before awakening until their normal time of awakening to allow the scent to become associated with the CAR. On the final night, participants are forced to wake 4 hours earlier, when cortisol levels are normally low, and either the same (conditioned group) or a different (control group) scent is presented half an hour before this new time. This allows us to test whether cortisol levels are higher after the same scent is presented. The primary outcome is the CAR, assessed by saliva cortisol levels, 0, 15, 30, and 45 minutes after awakening. The secondary outcomes are heart rate variability, actigraphy measures taken during sleep, and self-reported mood after awakening. To perform manipulations and measurements, this study uses wearable devices, 2 smartphone apps, web-based questionnaires, and a programmed scent device.
We completed data collection as of December 24, 2021.
This study can provide new insights into learning effects on cortisol and the diurnal rhythm. If the procedure does affect the CAR and associated measures, it also has potential clinical implications in the treatment of sleep and stress disorders.
Netherlands Trial Register NL58792.058.16; https://trialsearch.who.int/Trial2.aspx?TrialID=NL7791