Acute psychosocial stress alters thalamic network centrality

Neuroimage. 2019 Oct 1;199:680-690. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.06.005. Epub 2019 Jun 5.


Acute stress triggers a broad psychophysiological response that is adaptive if rapidly activated and terminated. While the brain controls the stress response, it is strongly affected by it. Previous research of stress effects on brain activation and connectivity has mainly focused on pre-defined brain regions or networks, potentially missing changes in the rest of the brain. We here investigated how both stress reactivity and stress recovery are reflected in whole-brain network topology and how changes in functional connectivity relate to other stress measures. Healthy young males (n = 67) completed the Trier Social Stress Test or a control task. From 60 min before until 105 min after stress onset, blocks of resting-state fMRI were acquired. Subjective, autonomic, and endocrine measures of the stress response were assessed throughout the experiment. Whole-brain network topology was quantified using Eigenvector centrality (EC) mapping, which detects central hubs of a network. Stress influenced subjective affect, autonomic activity, and endocrine measures. EC differences between groups as well as before and after stress exposure were found in the thalamus, due to widespread connectivity changes in the brain. Stress-driven EC increases in the thalamus were significantly correlated with subjective stress ratings and showed non-significant trends for a correlation with heart rate variability and saliva cortisol. Furthermore, increases in thalamic EC and in saliva cortisol persisted until 105 min after stress onset. We conclude that thalamic areas are central for information processing after stress exposure and may provide an interface for the stress response in the rest of the body and in the mind.

Keywords: Cortisol; Eigenvector centrality mapping; Resting-state fMRI; Stress; TSST; Thalamus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Connectome*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / diagnostic imaging
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Thalamus / diagnostic imaging
  • Thalamus / physiopathology*
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone