Acute stress is known to affect the way we process rewards. For example, during, or directly after stress, activity within key brain areas of the reward circuitry is reduced when a reward is presented. Generally, the effects of stress on the brain are time-dependent, changing neural and cognitive processing in the aftermath of stress to aid recovery. Such a dynamic response to stress is important for resilience on the longer term. However, relatively little is known about reward processing during the recovery phase of stress and whether this is changed in individuals at increased risk for stress-related psychopathology.
Healthy male individuals (N = 40) and unaffected siblings of schizophrenia patients (N = 40) were randomized to either an acute stress task (Trier Social Stress Test) or a no-stress task. Neural responses during reward anticipation and reward feedback (monetary gain or no gain) were examined 50 min later using an fMRI monetary incentive delay task. The ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) were used as predefined hypothesis-driven regions of interest.
Neural responses following stress differed between controls and siblings during reward feedback (group-stress interaction OFC p = 0.003, ventral striatum p = 0.031), showing increased ventral striatum and OFC responses following stress in healthy controls only. Exploratory analyses revealed that this effect was most pronounced during hit trials (compared to when a reward was omitted), and independent of monetary value. Stress did not affect subsequent reward processing in siblings of schizophrenia patients. We found no significant differences between controls and siblings in ventral striatum and OFC responses during reward anticipation following stress.
This study shows that ventral striatum and OFC responses to positive task feedback are increased in the aftermath of stress in healthy male controls, regardless of monetary value. This indicates a dynamic shift from previously reported reduced responses in the striatum and OFC to reward feedback directly after stress to increased responses to both reward and non-reward feedback during the recovery phase of stress. These increased neural responses following stress were absent in siblings of schizophrenia patients. Together, these findings indicate that stress recovery is affected in this at-risk group, particularly in responses to positive feedback following stress.
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