Journal article Open Access

Acute stress-induced cortisol elevations mediate reward system activity during subconscious processing of sexual stimuli

Oei, Nicole Y. L.; Both, Stephanie; van Heemst, Diana; van der Grond, Jeroen

Summary Stress is thought to alter motivational processes by increasing dopamine (DA) secretion in the brain's ''reward system'', and its key region, the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). However, stress studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), mainly found evidence for stress-induced decreases in NAcc responsiveness toward reward cues. Results from both animal and human PETstudies indicate that the stress hormone cortisol may be crucial in the interaction between stress and dopaminergic actions. In the present study we therefore investigated whether cortisol mediated the effect of stress on DA-related responses to -subliminal- presentation of reward cues using the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), which is known to reliably enhance cortisol levels. Young healthy males (n = 37) were randomly assigned to the TSST or control condition. After stress induction, brain activation was assessed using fMRI during a backward-masking paradigm in which potentially rewarding (sexual), emotionally negative and neutral stimuli were presented subliminally, masked by pictures of inanimate objects. A region of interest analysis showed that stress decreased activation in the NAcc in response to masked sexual cues (voxel-corrected, p

Funded by the European Union. Part of the European Commission FP7 Open Access pilot.
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