Prefrontal cortex executive processes affected by stress in health and disease

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2018 Jul 13:85:161-179. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2017.07.004. Epub 2017 Jul 6.


Prefrontal cortical executive functions comprise a number of cognitive capabilities necessary for goal directed behavior and adaptation to a changing environment. Executive dysfunction that leads to maladaptive behavior and is a symptom of psychiatric pathology can be instigated or exacerbated by stress. In this review we survey research addressing the impact of stress on executive function, with specific focus on working memory, attention, response inhibition, and cognitive flexibility. We then consider the neurochemical pathways underlying these cognitive capabilities and, where known, how stress alters them. Finally, we review work exploring potential pharmacological and non-pharmacological approaches that can ameliorate deficits in executive function. Both preclinical and clinical literature indicates that chronic stress negatively affects executive function. Although some of the circuitry and neurochemical processes underlying executive function have been characterized, a great deal is still unknown regarding how stress affects these processes. Additional work focusing on this question is needed in order to make progress on developing interventions that ameliorate executive dysfunction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Executive Function / drug effects
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Prefrontal Cortex / drug effects
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological / therapy