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, 30 (5), 319-25

The Montreal Imaging Stress Task: Using Functional Imaging to Investigate the Effects of Perceiving and Processing Psychosocial Stress in the Human Brain

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The Montreal Imaging Stress Task: Using Functional Imaging to Investigate the Effects of Perceiving and Processing Psychosocial Stress in the Human Brain

Katarina Dedovic et al. J Psychiatry Neurosci.

Abstract

Objective: We developed a protocol for inducing moderate psychologic stress in a functional imaging setting and evaluated the effects of stress on physiology and brain activation.

Methods: The Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST), derived from the Trier Mental Challenge Test, consists of a series of computerized mental arithmetic challenges, along with social evaluative threat components that are built into the program or presented by the investigator. To allow the effects of stress and mental arithmetic to be investigated separately, the MIST has 3 test conditions (rest, control and experimental), which can be presented in either a block or an event-related design, for use with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or positron emission tomography (PET). In the rest condition, subjects look at a static computer screen on which no tasks are shown. In the control condition, a series of mental arithmetic tasks are displayed on the computer screen, and subjects submit their answers by means of a response interface. In the experimental condition, the difficulty and time limit of the tasks are manipulated to be just beyond the individual's mental capacity. In addition, in this condition the presentation of the mental arithmetic tasks is supplemented by a display of information on individual and average performance, as well as expected performance. Upon completion of each task, the program presents a performance evaluation to further increase the social evaluative threat of the situation.

Results: In 2 independent studies using PET and a third independent study using fMRI, with a total of 42 subjects, levels of salivary free cortisol for the whole group were significantly increased under the experimental condition, relative to the control and rest conditions. Performing mental arithmetic was linked to activation of motor and visual association cortices, as well as brain structures involved in the performance of these tasks (e.g., the angular gyrus).

Conclusions: We propose the MIST as a tool for investigating the effects of perceiving and processing psychosocial stress in functional imaging studies.

Figures

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Fig. 1: Graphical user interface of the Montreal Imaging Stress Task (MIST). From top to bottom, the figure shows the performance indicators (top arrow = average performance, bottom arrow = individual subject's performance), the mental arithmetic task, the progress bar reflecting the imposed time limit, the text field for feedback, and the rotary dial for the response submission.
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Fig. 2: Cortisol response to the MIST compared with the rest condition in positron emission tomography (PET) study 1. Ten subjects were scanned twice on 2 separate days. Six saliva samples were taken during both the experimental (stress) condition and the rest condition, starting at the time of injection of the PET tracer (time 0) and every 12 minutes thereafter throughout the experiment. The values represent cortisol levels as mean and standard error.
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Fig. 3: Cortisol response to the MIST compared with control and rest conditions in PET study 2. Ten subjects underwent testing under 3 conditions on the same day: rest, control and experimental (stress), with 3 sessions for each condition. The order of sessions was counterbalanced between subjects (not shown). Six saliva samples were collected during the experiment, one before and one after each condition (time 1 and time 2). The values represent cortisol levels as mean and standard error.
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Fig. 4: Cortisol response to the MIST in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (study 3). Twenty-two subjects were exposed to 3 MIST fMRI runs. Each run consisted of 2 rest, 2 control and 2 stress conditions (ABCABC design). A total of 7 saliva samples were obtained, starting at 30 minutes before the onset of the 3 MIST runs (time 0) and continuing until 40 minutes after the MIST runs. The samples were taken 20 minutes apart, except for the last 2 measurements (obtained with the subject outside the scanner), which were taken 10 minutes apart. The values represent cortisol levels as mean and standard error.
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Fig. 5: Statistical parametric map displaying significant activations with blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) signal as a result of performing the MIST in study 3 (n = 22). Areas significantly activated as a result of performing the MIST include the visual association cortex, the sensory and motor cortices, the angular gyrus, the thalamus and the cingulate gyrus, as shown here in (a) horizontal, (b) coronal and (c) sagittal slices. All areas shown exceed the threshold for statistical significance of t > 4.5.

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