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, 96, 25-34

Acute and Past Subjective Stress Influence Working Memory and Related Neural Substrates


Acute and Past Subjective Stress Influence Working Memory and Related Neural Substrates

Lennart Luettgau et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology.


Stress has been proposed to affect cognitive control capacities, including working memory (WM) maintenance. This effect may depend on variability in stress reactivity and past subjective stress. However, as most studies employed between-subjects designs, evidence for within-subject stress effects remains scarce. To understand the role of intra-individual stress effects on WM, we adopted a within-subject design to study how acute stress, variability in stress reactivity, and past subjective stress influence behavioral and neural WM mechanisms. Thirty-four healthy males performed a WM task during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in a control versus acute stress condition following the Trier Social Stress Test, a validated psychosocial stressor method. We tested for stress effects on WM performance and related neural activation by associating them with individual acute stress responsivity and past subjective stress experience using retrospective self-report questionnaires. We found no evidence of an effect of acute stress or related stress-reactivity on intra-individual WM performance. However, past subjective stress negatively influenced acute stress-induced changes to WM. On the neural level, acute stress reduced WM-related activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC). The observed negative influence of inter-individual variability in past subjective stress experience on changes in WM performance, suggests that past subjective stress might induce vulnerability for impairing effects of acute stress on cognitive functioning. Because acute stress reduced WM-related dlPFC activation while WM performance remained unaffected, acute stress might boost neural processing efficiency in this group of high performing healthy individuals. Our study suggests that measures of past subjective stress should be considered when studying and interpreting the effects of acute stress on cognition.

Keywords: Acute stress; Cortisol; Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC); Past subjective stress; Trier social stress test (TSST); Working memory (WM); n-Back task.

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