There are increasing reports about stress related cognitive and psychic declines in subjects who have no psychiatric premorbidity, depression, or major life trauma. Yet, little is known about the underlying neurobiology. Based on the typical symptomatology, fMRI data suggesting that stress activates the limbic circuits, and animal data showing a major involvement of the 5-HT(1A) receptor in stress regulation, we hypothesized that enduring daily stress causes widespread limbic dysfunctions, and specific changes of the 5-HT(1A) receptor. To test these hypotheses combined PET studies were carried out in 16 chronically stressed, and 16 non-stressed subjects. Limbic function was tested by measuring cerebral blood flow during rest, and when using an odor activation paradigm. 5-HT(1A) receptor binding potential (BP) was assessed with [(11)C]WAY100635. All subjects went through a battery of neuropsychological tests. Stressed subjects showed a functional disconnection between the amygdala and ACC/medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and an impaired odor activation of the ACC. They also displayed a reduced 5-HT(1A) receptor BP in the anterior cingulate (ACC), the insular-cortex, and the hippocampus. Their performance in attention-, odor discrimination-, and semantic memory tasks was impaired, and correlated with the BP-values in the respective region. The degree of reported stress was inversely correlated with activation of ACC, and the 5-HT(1A) receptor BP in the amygdala and hippocampus. Enduring every day psychosocial stress seems to be associated with a limbic reduction of 5-HT(1A) receptor binding and functional disintegration of ACC/mPFC. These changes support the notion of an impaired top-down regulation of stress stimuli, and identify potential targets for early treatment.
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