Background: Stress elicits a variety of psychophysiological responses that show large interindividual variability. Determining the neural mechanisms that mediate individual differences in the emotional response to stress would provide new insight that would have important implications for understanding stress-related disorders. Therefore, the present study examined individual differences in the relationship between brain activity and the emotional response to stress. In the largest stress study to date, 239 participants completed the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST) while heart rate, skin conductance response (SCR), cortisol, self-reported stress, and blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) functional MRI (fMRI) signal responses were measured. The relationship between differential responses (heart rate, SCR, cortisol, and self-reported stress) and differential BOLD fMRI data was analyzed. Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), dorsomedial PFC, ventromedial PFC, and amygdala activity varied with the behavioral response (i.e., SCR and self-reported stress). These results suggest the PFC and amygdala support processes that are important for the expression and regulation of the emotional response to stress, and that stress-related PFC and amygdala activity underlie interindividual variability in peripheral physiologic measures of the stress response.
Stress tasks performed during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) elicit a relatively small cortisol response compared to stress tasks completed in a traditional behavioral laboratory, which may be due to apprehension of fMRI that elicits an anticipatory stress response. The present study investigated whether anticipatory stress is greater prior to research completed in an MRI environment than in a traditional behavioral laboratory. Anticipatory stress (indexed by cortisol) was greater prior to testing in the MRI environment than traditional behavioral laboratory. Furthermore, anticipation of fMRI elicited a cortisol response commensurate with the response to the stress task in the behavioral laboratory. However, in the MRI environment, post-stress cortisol was significantly lower than baseline cortisol. Taken together, these findings suggest the stress elicited by anticipation of fMRI may lead to acute elevations in cortisol prior to scanning, which may in turn disrupt the cortisol response to stress tasks performed during scanning.