Anticipatory stress associated with functional magnetic resonance imaging: Implications for psychosocial stress research

Int J Psychophysiol. 2018 Mar;125:35-41. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2018.02.005. Epub 2018 Feb 14.


Stress tasks performed during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) elicit a relatively small cortisol response compared to stress tasks completed in a traditional behavioral laboratory, which may be due to apprehension of fMRI that elicits an anticipatory stress response. The present study investigated whether anticipatory stress is greater prior to research completed in an MRI environment than in a traditional behavioral laboratory. Anticipatory stress (indexed by cortisol) was greater prior to testing in the MRI environment than traditional behavioral laboratory. Furthermore, anticipation of fMRI elicited a cortisol response commensurate with the response to the stress task in the behavioral laboratory. However, in the MRI environment, post-stress cortisol was significantly lower than baseline cortisol. Taken together, these findings suggest the stress elicited by anticipation of fMRI may lead to acute elevations in cortisol prior to scanning, which may in turn disrupt the cortisol response to stress tasks performed during scanning.

Keywords: Anticipatory stress; Cortisol; Psychosocial stress; Skin conductance; fMRI.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Anticipation, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen
  • Hydrocortisone