Bigger is not better: cortisol-induced cardiac growth and dysfunction in salmonids

Ida B. Johansen, Erik Sandblom, Peter Vilhelm Skov, Albin Gräns, Andreas Ekström, Ida G. Lunde, Marco A. Vindas, Lili Zhang, Erik Höglund, Michael Frisk, Ivar Sjaastad, Göran E. Nilsson, Øyvind Øverli

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Stress and elevated cortisol levels are associated with pathological heart growth and cardiovascular disease in humans and other mammals. We recently established a link between heritable variation in post-stress cortisol production and cardiac growth in salmonid fish too. A conserved stimulatory effect of the otherwise catabolic steroid hormone cortisol is probably implied, but has to date not been established experimentally. Furthermore, whereas cardiac growth is associated with failure of the mammalian heart, pathological cardiac hypertrophy has not previously been described in fish. Here, we show that rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) treated with cortisol in the diet for 45 days have enlarged hearts with lower maximum stroke volume and cardiac output. In accordance with impaired cardiac performance, overall circulatory oxygen-transporting capacity was diminished as indicated by reduced aerobic swimming performance. In contrast to the well-known adaptive/physiological heart growth observed in fish, cortisol-induced growth is maladaptive. Furthermore, the observed heart growth was associated with up-regulated signature genes of mammalian cardiac pathology, suggesting that signalling pathways mediating cortisol-induced cardiac remodelling in fish are conserved from fish to mammals. Altogether, we show that excessive cortisol can induce pathological cardiac remodelling. This is the first study to report and integrate the etiology, physiology and molecular biology of cortisol-induced pathological remodelling in fish.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Pages (from-to)2545-2553
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Cardiac performance
  • Chronic stress
  • Heart failure
  • Myocardial hypertrophy
  • Rainbow trout

Cite this

Johansen, I. B., Sandblom, E., Skov, P. V., Gräns, A., Ekström, A., Lunde, I. G., Vindas, M. A., Zhang, L., Höglund, E., Frisk, M., Sjaastad, I., Nilsson, G. E., & Øverli, Ø. (2017). Bigger is not better: cortisol-induced cardiac growth and dysfunction in salmonids. Journal of Experimental Biology, 220, 2545-2553.