Acute stress alters the 'default' brain processing

Neuroimage. 2019 Apr 1;189:870-877. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.01.063. Epub 2019 Jan 28.


Active adaptation to acute stress is essential for coping with daily life challenges. The stress hormone cortisol, as well as large scale re-allocations of brain resources have been implicated in this adaptation. Stress-induced shifts between large-scale brain networks, including salience (SN), central executive (CEN) and default mode networks (DMN), have however been demonstrated mainly under task-conditions. It remains unclear whether such network shifts also occur in the absence of ongoing task-demands, and most critically, whether these network shifts are predictive of individual variation in the magnitude of cortisol stress-responses. In a sample of 335 healthy participants, we investigated stress-induced functional connectivity changes (delta-FC) of the SN, CEN and DMN, using resting-state fMRI data acquired before and after a socially evaluated cold-pressor test and a mental arithmetic task. To investigate which network changes are associated with acute stress, we evaluated the association between cortisol increase and delta-FC of each network. Stress-induced cortisol increase was associated with increased connectivity within the SN, but with decreased coupling of DMN at both local (within network) and global (synchronization with brain regions also outside the network) levels. These findings indicate that acute stress prompts immediate connectivity changes in large-scale resting-state networks, including the SN and DMN in the absence of explicit ongoing task-demands. Most interestingly, this brain reorganization is coupled with individuals' cortisol stress-responsiveness. These results suggest that the observed stress-induced network reorganization might function as a neural mechanism determining individual stress reactivity and, therefore, it could serve as a promising marker for future studies on stress resilience and vulnerability.

Keywords: Functional connectivity; RSNs; Resting-state fMRI; Resting-state networks; Stress; Stress reactivity; Stress vulnerability.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Connectome / methods*
  • Disease Susceptibility / diagnostic imaging
  • Disease Susceptibility / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Saliva
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Hydrocortisone