Stress exposure is known to precipitate psychological disorders. However, large differences exist in how individuals respond to stressful situations. A major marker for stress sensitivity is hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis function. Here, we studied how interindividual variance in both basal cortisol levels and stress-induced cortisol responses predicts differences in neural vigilance processing during stress exposure. Implementing a randomized, counterbalanced, crossover design, 120 healthy male participants were exposed to a stress-induction and control procedure, followed by an emotional perception task (viewing fearful and happy faces) during fMRI scanning. Stress sensitivity was assessed using physiological (salivary cortisol levels) and psychological measures (trait questionnaires). High stress-induced cortisol responses were associated with increased stress sensitivity as assessed by psychological questionnaires, a stronger stress-induced increase in medial temporal activity and greater differential amygdala responses to fearful as opposed to happy faces under control conditions. In contrast, high basal cortisol levels were related to relative stress resilience as reflected by higher extraversion scores, a lower stress-induced increase in amygdala activity and enhanced differential processing of fearful compared with happy faces under stress. These findings seem to reflect a critical role for HPA-axis signaling in stress coping; higher basal levels indicate stress resilience, whereas higher cortisol responsivity to stress might facilitate recovery in those individuals prone to react sensitively to stress.
Keywords: amygdala; cortisol; interindividual differences; neural vigilance; stress.
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