Trait and contextual factors can shape individual and group differences in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) response to stress; but the ways in which these factors may interact with each other to modulate stress activity has rarely been examined. Here, we investigated whether the association between a temperamental self-regulatory trait – Effortful Control (EC) – and HPA axis stress response is moderated by type of laboratory stress in sixty-five children (35 boys). EC was measured at age 3 and 6 using age-appropriate laboratory batteries as well as mother reports. HPA axis responses were measured at age 7 by randomly assigning children to one of two laboratory stress tasks (frustration vs. fear). Results indicated that EC interacted with stress context in predicting cortisol response. Specifically, lower EC was associated with greater cortisol response (steeper reactivity slopes) in the context of a frustration stressor but this was reversed in a fear context where lower EC was associated with flatter, more gradual activation. It is likely that different components of EC, such as emotion regulation and attention, differentially interact with the stress context. These types of effects and interactions need to be more thoroughly understood in order to meaningfully interpret cortisol reactivity data and better characterize the role of the HPA axis in human psychopathology.
HPA; salivary cortisol; stress; effortful control; temperament; fear; frustration; children
The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is a critical mediator linking stress to health. Understanding how to modulate its reactivity could potentially help reduce the detrimental health effects of HPA axis activation. Social evaluative threat is a potent activator of this system. Access to control and coping responses can reduce its reactivity to pharmacological activation. Compassionate or affiliative behaviors may also moderate stress reactivity. Impact of these moderators on social evaluative threat is unknown. Here, we tested the hypotheses that interventions to increase control, coping, or compassionate (versus competitive) goals could reduce HPA-axis response to social evaluative threat.
Healthy participants (n = 54) were exposed to social evaluative threat using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). They were randomly assigned to receive one of four different instructions prior to the stressor: Standard TSST instructions (SI), standard instructions with access to “control” (SI Control), or one of two cognitive interventions (CI) that (1) increased familiarity and helped participants prepare coping strategies (CI Coping), or (2) shifted goal orientation from self-promotion to helping others (CI Compassionate Goals). ACTH and Cortisol were obtained before and after stress exposure via intravenous catheter.
Control alone had no effect. CI Compassionate Goals significantly reduced ACTH and Cortisol responses to the TSST; CI Coping raised baseline levels. Compassionate Goals reduced hormonal responses without reducing subjective anxiety, stress or fear, while increasing expression of pro-social intentions and focus on helping others.
Brief intervention to shift focus from competitive self-promotion to a goal orientation of helping-others can reduce HPA-axis activation to a potent psychosocial stressor. This supports the potential for developing brief interventions as inoculation tools to reduce the impact of predictable stressors and lends support to growing evidence that compassion and altruistic goals can moderate the effects of stress.
HPA; Cortisol; ACTH; Stress; Psychosocial stress; Trier Social Stress Test; Compassion; Control; Coping
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients display pervasive fear memories, expressed indiscriminately. Proposed mechanisms include enhanced fear learning and impaired extinction or extinction recall. Documented extinction recall deficits and failure to use safety signals could result from general failure to use contextual information, a hippocampus-dependent process. This can be probed by adding a renewal phase to standard conditioning and extinction paradigms. Human subjects with PTSD and combat controls were conditioned (skin conductance response), extinguished, and tested for extinction retention and renewal in a scanner (fMRI). Fear conditioning (light paired with shock) occurred in one context, followed by extinction in another, to create danger and safety contexts. The next day, the extinguished conditioned stimulus (CS+E) was re-presented to assess extinction recall (safety context) and fear renewal (danger context). PTSD patients showed impaired extinction recall, with increased skin conductance and heightened amygdala activity to the extinguished CS+ in the safety context. However, they also showed impaired fear renewal; in the danger context, they had less skin conductance response to CS+E and lower activity in amygdala and ventral-medial prefrontal cortex compared with combat controls. Control subjects displayed appropriate contextual modulation of memory recall, with extinction (safety) memory prevailing in the safety context, and fear memory prevailing in the danger context. PTSD patients could not use safety context to sustain suppression of extinguished fear memory, but they also less effectively used danger context to enhance fear. They did not display globally enhanced fear expression, but rather showed a globally diminished capacity to use contextual information to modulate fear expression.
amygdala; context; fear conditioning; hippocampus; imaging; memory
Individuals vary in the degree to which salient threatening stimuli disrupt or distract from goal-directed cognitive processes. Excessive attention to threat or difficulty resolving the interference created by threat cues could contribute to anxious psychopathology; disruptions in frontal brain regions implicated in attentional control or resolution of emotional interference (e.g. anterior cingulate cortex, “ACC”) might play a role. In this study, we explored the hypothesis that trait anxiety would be associated with ACC activity in an attentional control task with varying levels of threat interference.
During functional magnetic resonance imaging, 20 healthy individuals who varied in trait anxiety levels viewed angry, fearful, and neutral faces superimposed on an indoor or outdoor scene. In a high-threat interference condition, subjects identified the gender of the face (Attend Face). In a low-threat interference condition, they identified the scene type (Attend Scene). Whole-brain analysis was used to compare Attend Face with Attend Scene for angry and fearful (versus neutral) faces. Contrasts were correlated with trait anxiety level.
Behavioral data confirmed that Attend Face produced greater threat interference than Attend Scene. Brain imaging results showed that trait anxiety was inversely associated with bilateral rostral ACC activity for Attend Face relative to Attend Scene for angry faces. A similar relationship was not seen for fearful faces.
The rostral ACC is implicated in assessing the salience of emotional information and controlling attention to resolve emotional interference. The link between higher trait anxiety and decreased ACC activation for angry faces suggests reduced attentional control for signals of interpersonal threat in healthy anxiety-prone individuals.
attention; bias; angry; fearful; brain imaging
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is a neurosteroid with anxiolytic, antidepressant, and antiglucocorticoid properties. It is endogenously released in response to stress, and may reduce negative affect when administered exogenously. Although there have been multiple reports of DHEA's antidepressant and anxiolytic effects, no research to date has examined the neural pathways involved. In particular, brain imaging has not been used to link neurosteroid effects to emotion neurocircuitry. To investigate the brain basis of DHEA's impact on emotion modulation, patients were administered 400 mg of DHEA (N=14) or placebo (N=15) and underwent 3T fMRI while performing the shifted-attention emotion appraisal task (SEAT), a test of emotional processing and regulation. Compared with placebo, DHEA reduced activity in the amygdala and hippocampus, enhanced connectivity between the amygdala and hippocampus, and enhanced activity in the rACC. These activation changes were associated with reduced negative affect. DHEA reduced memory accuracy for emotional stimuli, and also reduced activity in regions associated with conjunctive memory encoding. These results demonstrate that DHEA reduces activity in regions associated with generation of negative emotion and enhances activity in regions linked to regulatory processes. Considering that activity in these regions is altered in mood and anxiety disorders, our results provide initial neuroimaging evidence that DHEA may be useful as a pharmacological intervention for these conditions and invite further investigation into the brain basis of neurosteroid emotion regulatory effects.
androsterone; dehydroepiandrosterone; emotion regulation; imaging; clinical or preclinical; learning & memory; mood/anxiety/stress disorders; neuroendocrinology; neurosteroid; dehydroepiandrosterone; neurosteroid; androsterone; fMRI; emotion regulation
There is considerable anecdotal and some scientific evidence that stress triggers eating behavior, but underlying physiological mechanisms remain uncertain. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a key mediator of physiological stress responses and may play a role in the link between stress and food intake. Cortisol responses to laboratory stressors predict consumption but it is unclear whether such responses mark a vulnerability to stress-related eating or whether cortisol directly stimulates eating in humans.
We infused healthy adults with corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) at a dose that is subjectively undetectable but elicits a robust endogenous cortisol response, and measured subsequent intake of snack foods, allowing analysis of HPA reactivity effects on food intake without the complex psychological effects of a stress paradigm.
CRH elevated cortisol levels relative to placebo but did not impact subjective anxious distress. Subjects ate more following CRH than following placebo and peak cortisol response to CRH was strongly related to both caloric intake and total consumption.
These data show that HPA axis reactivity to pharmacological stimulation predicts subsequent food intake and suggest that cortisol itself may directly stimulate food consumption in humans. Understanding the physiological mechanisms that underlie stress-related eating may prove useful in efforts to attack the public health crises created by obesity.
stress; cortisol; CRH; appetite; HPA
The hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is critical for biobehavioral adaptation to challenge and appears dysregulated in a range of psychiatric disorders. Its precise role in psychopathology remains unclear and discrepant and difficult to explain findings abound in the clinical literature. Basic research suggests this system is sensitive to psychosocial cues, but psychosocial milieu factors are rarely controlled or examined in psychiatric studies using biological probes of the HPA axis. To test the hypothesis that psychological factors might complicate HPA study results even in direct, pharmacological challenge paradigms, endocrine responses to corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) were examined under two different cognitive preparation conditions.
Healthy subjects (n=32) received standard instructions or a cognitive intervention (CI) prior to injection with CRH and placebo, given on separate days in random order. The CI combined access to control over drug exposure with novelty reduction and coping enhancement. Blood samples were obtained via intravenous catheter before and after CRH.
Cognitive intervention reduced corticotropin (ACTH) levels, but only when CRH was given first (intervention by order interaction). It did not reduce cortisol response. The CI and visit (1st or 2nd) both impacted cortisol levels on placebo day.
Modifiable psychological factors may amplify or inhibit HPA axis activity in pharmacological activation paradigms, including CRH stimulation tests. The factors manipulated by the CI (novelty/familiarity, control and coping) may have particular salience to the HPA axis. Differential sensitivity to such factors could impact results in studies applying biological HPA probes to psychiatric populations.
stress; cortisol; ACTH, corticotropin-releasing hormone; control; coping
The glucocorticoid hormone cortisol is known to have wide-ranging effects on a variety of physiological systems, including the morphology and physiology of the amygdala and hippocampus. Disruptions of cortisol regulation and signaling are also linked with psychiatric disorders involving emotional disturbances. Although there is much evidence to suggest a relationship between cortisol signaling and the brain physiology underlying emotion, few studies have attempted to test for direct effects of cortisol on the neurophysiology of emotion. We administered exogenous synthetic cortisol (hydrocortisone, HCT) using two different dosing regimens (25 mg/day over 4 days, 100 mg single dose), in a double-blind placebo-controlled functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study. During fMRI scanning, healthy subjects viewed images designed to induce happy, sad, and neutral emotional states. Subjective emotional reactions were collected for each experimental stimulus after fMRI scanning. Mood ratings were also collected throughout the 4 days of the study. Both dose regimens of HCT resulted in decreased subgenual cingulate activation during sadness conditions. The 25 mg/day regimen also resulted in higher arousal ratings of sad stimuli. No effects of HCT were observed on any mood ratings. Few reliable effects of HCT were observed on brain activity patterns or subjective emotional responses to stimuli that were not sad. The inhibitory effects of cortisol on sadness-induced subgenual cingulate activity may have critical relevance to the pathophysiology of major depression, as both subgenual hyperactivity and decreased sensitivity to cortisol signaling have been documented in patients with depression.
cortisol; emotion; fMRI; glucocorticoids; corticosteroids; subgenual; Imaging; Clinical or Preclinical; Neuroendocrinology; Psychopharmacology; Neurophysiology; Cortisol; Emotion; fMRI; Glucocorticoids; Corticosteroids
The hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis may mediate negative health effects of stress. It is sensitive to cognitive/emotional factors like novelty, perceived control and coping. Psychological intervention that reduces novelty, and enhances cognitive coping and sense of control can reduce cortisol responses to pentagastrin, a pharmacological HPA activator. This study attempted to identify the core factors that modulate HPA axis activity in this model.
Varying instructions were administered prior to drug exposure in a two-visit (placebo first) pentagastrin infusion paradigm. Healthy subjects (n=40) were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 instruction groups: (1) Standard instruction (SI); (2) Full cognitive intervention (CI); (3) The CI control component alone; or (4) The CI novelty reduction/coping components alone. Blood samples were obtained via intravenous catheter before and after pentagastrin.
Subjects receiving an intervention had smaller cortisol responses than subjects receiving standard instructions. “Coping” alone had as strong an impact as the more complex intervention that combined “coping” and “control.” “Control alone” also reduced cortisol but its HPA impact appeared less robust.
Brief psychological manipulation can significantly reduce HPA activation in challenge paradigms. Cognitive preparation that focused on side effects, reduced potential surprise and enhanced cognitive coping modulated HPA axis activity as effectively as a previously tested intervention that combined coping and control manipulations. A sense of control alone also reduced cortisol release. The results support development of “control” or “coping” techniques to combat negative health effects of stress that are mediated by HPA axis activation.
stress; cortisol; pentagastrin; control; coping; anxiety
Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) show an increased error-related negativity (ERN), yet previous studies have not controlled for medication use, which may be important given evidence linking performance monitoring to neurotransmitter systems targeted by treatment, such as serotonin. In an examination of 19 unmedicated OCD patients, 19 medicated OCD patients, 19 medicated patient controls without OCD, and 21 unmedicated healthy controls, we found greater ERNs in OCD patients than in controls, irrespective of medication use. Severity of generalized anxiety and depression was associated with ERN amplitude in controls but not patients. These data confirm previous findings of an exaggerated error response in OCD, further showing that it cannot be attributed to medication. The absence in patients of a relationship between ERN amplitude and anxiety/depression, as was found in controls, suggests that elevated error signals in OCD may be disorder-specific.
Error-related negativity (ERN); Event-related potentials (ERPs); Anxiety; Anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)
A first-line approach to treat anxiety disorders is exposure-based therapy, which relies on extinction processes such as repeatedly exposing the patient to stimuli (conditioned stimuli; CS) associated with the traumatic, fear-related memory. However, a significant number of patients fail to maintain their gains, partly attributed to the fact that this inhibitory learning and its maintenance is temporary and conditioned fear responses can return. Animal studies have shown that activation of the cannabinoid system during extinction learning enhances fear extinction and its retention. Specifically, CB1 receptor agonists, such as Δ9-tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), can facilitate extinction recall by preventing recovery of extinguished fear in rats. However, this phenomenon has not been investigated in humans. We conducted a study using a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects design, coupling a standard Pavlovian fear extinction paradigm and simultaneous skin conductance response (SCR) recording with an acute pharmacological challenge with oral dronabinol (synthetic THC) or placebo (PBO) 2 hours prior to extinction learning in 29 healthy adult volunteers (THC = 14; PBO = 15) and tested extinction retention 24 hours after extinction learning. Compared to subjects that received PBO, subjects that received THC showed low SCR to a previously extinguished CS when extinction memory recall was tested 24 hours after extinction learning, suggesting that THC prevented the recovery of fear. These results provide the first evidence that pharmacological enhancement of extinction learning is feasible in humans using cannabinoid system modulators, which may thus warrant further development and clinical testing.
Nervios (PNRV) and ataque de nervios (ATQ) are culture-bound syndromes with overlapping symptoms of anxiety, depression, and dissociation, shown to have inconsistent associations to psychiatric disorder. Few studies test the basic assumption that PNRV and ATQ are uniformly linked to distress outcomes across Latina/o immigrant groups. This study examined: (a) the extent to which acculturative stress, Latino/U.S. American acculturation, and anxious predisposition were associated with lifetime history of ATQ and PNRV, and (b) the extent to which ATQ and PNRV add incremental validity in explaining acculturative stress and psychological distress beyond measures of anxious predisposition.
Participants (n = 82) included Mexican mothers who completed surveys on acculturation, trait anxiety, anxiety sensitivity, lifetime ATQ/PNRV, psychological distress, and acculturative stress.
Lifetime PNRV, but not lifetime ATQ, was significantly predictive of psychological distress. PNRV was also linked to trait anxiety. Psychometric measures of anxious predisposition (trait anxiety, anxiety sensitivity) were more robust predictors of distress outcomes than lifetime history of ATQ/PNRV.
Inquiry into lifetime history of nervios may be a useful point of entry in talking to Mexican immigrant mothers about stress and distress. However, standard tools for assessing anxiety sensitivity and trait anxiety appear most useful in identifying and explaining presence of psychological distress. Further research is needed to determine the cross-cultural relevance of trait anxiety and anxiety sensitivity, and its implications for the development of anxiety treatments that are effective across cultures.
anxiety sensitivity; culture-bound syndrome; nervios; Latinos; clinical utility
Pediatric obsessive-compulsive disorder is characterized by abnormalities of frontal-striatalthalamic circuitry that appear near illness onset and persist over its course. Distinct frontal-striatal-thalamic loops through cortical centers for cognitive control (anterior cingulate cortex) and emotion processing (ventral medial frontal cortex) follow unique maturational trajectories, and altered connectivity within distinct loops may be differentially associated with OCD at specific stages of development.
Altered development of striatal and thalamic connectivity to medial frontal cortex was tested in 60 OCD patients compared to 61 healthy controls at child, adolescent and adult stages of development, using resting state functional connectivity MRI.
OCD in the youngest patients was associated with reduced connectivity of dorsal striatum and medial dorsal thalamus to rostral and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, respectively. Increased connectivity of dorsal striatum to ventral medial frontal cortex was observed in patients at all developmental stages. In child patients, reduced connectivity between dorsal striatum and rostral anterior cingulate cortex correlated with OCD severity.
Frontal-striatal-thalamic loops involved in cognitive control are hypoconnected in young patients near illness onset, while loops implicated in emotion-processing are hyperconnected throughout the illness.
obsessive compulsive disorder; frontal-striatal-thalamic; medial frontal cortex; resting state connectivity; development
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by an excessive focus on upsetting or disturbing thoughts, feelings, and images that are internally-generated. Internally-focused thought processes are subserved by the “default mode network" (DMN), which has been found to be hyperactive in OCD during cognitive tasks. In healthy individuals, disengagement from internally-focused thought processes may rely on interactions between DMN and a fronto-parietal network (FPN) associated with external attention and task execution. Altered connectivity between FPN and DMN may contribute to the dysfunctional behavior and brain activity found in OCD.
The current study examined interactions between FPN and DMN during rest in 30 patients with OCD (17 unmedicated) and 32 control subjects (17 unmedicated). Timecourses from seven fronto-parietal seeds were correlated across the whole brain and compared between groups.
OCD patients exhibited altered connectivity between FPN seeds (primarily anterior insula) and several regions of DMN including posterior cingulate cortex, medial frontal cortex, posterior inferior parietal lobule, and parahippocampus. These differences were driven largely by a reduction of negative correlations among patients compared to controls. Patients also showed greater positive connectivity between FPN and regions outside DMN, including thalamus, lateral frontal cortex, and somatosensory/motor regions.
OCD is associated with abnormal intrinsic functional connectivity between large-scale brain networks. Alteration of interactions between FPN and DMN at rest may contribute to aspects of the OCD phenotype, such as patients' inability to disengage from internally-generated scenarios and thoughts when performing everyday tasks requiring external attention.
Patients with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) show abnormal functioning in ventral frontal brain regions involved in emotional/motivational processes, including anterior insula/frontal operculum (aI/fO) and ventromedial frontal cortex (VMPFC). While OCD has been associated with an increased neural response to errors, the influence of motivational factors on this effect remains poorly understood.
To investigate the contribution of motivational factors to error processing in OCD, and to examine functional connectivity between regions involved in the error response, functional magnetic resonance imaging data were measured in 39 OCD patients (20 unmedicated, 19 medicated) and 38 control subjects (20 unmedicated, 18 medicated) during an error-eliciting interference task where motivational context was varied using monetary incentives (null, loss, and gain).
Across all errors, OCD patients showed reduced deactivation of VMPFC and greater activation in left aI/fO as compared to controls. For errors specifically resulting in a loss, patients further hyperactivated VMPFC as well as right aI/fO. Independent of activity associated with task events, OCD patients showed greater functional connectivity between VMPFC and regions of bilateral aI/fO and right thalamus.
OCD patients show greater activation in neural regions associated with emotion and valuation when making errors, which could be related to altered intrinsic functional connectivity between brain networks. These results highlight the importance of emotional/motivational responses to mistakes in OCD, and point to the need for further study of network interactions in the disorder.
fMRI; performance monitoring; anxiety; default mode; salience network; functional coupling
Study of the hypothalmic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis has been critical to advancing our understanding of human adaptation to stress. The cortisol response to awakening (CRA) is a potentially useful measure for understanding group and individual differences in HPA axis regulation. In this study, the CRA was examined in the context of a naturalistic stressor – a six-week voyage of work and study aboard an oceangoing ship, including both experienced and novice sailors. Thirty-one subjects provided weekday and weekend baseline CRA data onshore prior to boarding, followed by three CRAs at sea and one shore leave CRA. Subjective measures of sleep, stress and control were also collected. Results suggest that novice sailors' cortisol response to awakening was elevated at sea relative to both a shoreside weekend and a shore leave during the voyage, but the most striking elevation was found during a workday onshore. Inexperienced students' profiles changed differently over the course of the voyage from those of professional crew. CRAs were not affected by sleep variables and were not predicted by subjective ratings. These data support the value of the cortisol response to awakening as a neuroendocrine marker of HPA regulatory responses to a naturalistic stressor, influenced by changes in work and living environment, and perhaps prior experience with the stressor.
cortisol response to awakening; stress; naturalistic stressors; HPA axis