Deactivation of the Limbic System During Acute Psychosocial Stress: Evidence from Positron Emission Tomography and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies


      Stress-induced metabolic changes can have detrimental health effects. Newly developed paradigms to investigate stress in neuroimaging environments allow the assessment of brain activation changes in association with the perception of and the metabolic response to stress.


      We exposed human subjects to a psychosocial stressor in one positron emission tomography (n = 10) and one functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI; n = 40) experiment.


      We observed a profound deactivation of limbic system components including hippocampus, hypothalamus, medio-orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex in subjects who reacted to the stressor with a significant increase of the endocrine stress marker cortisol. Further, in the fMRI study, the degree of deactivation in the hippocampus was correlated with the release of cortisol in response to the stress task.


      The observed deactivation of limbic system structures suggests elevated activation at rest and during nonstressful situations. A model is proposed where the observed reduction in limbic system activity is essential for the initiation of the stress response.

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