Psychosocial stress reversibly disrupts prefrontal processing and attentional control
Relatively little is known about the long-term neurobiological sequelae of chronic stress, which predisposes susceptible patients to neuropsychiatric conditions affecting the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Animal models and human neuroimaging experiments provide complementary insights, yet efforts to integrate the two are often complicated by limitations inherent in drawing comparisons between unrelated studies with disparate designs. Translating from a rodent model of chronic stress where we have shown reversible disruption of PFC function, we show that psychosocial stress induces long-lasting but reversible impairments in behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measures of PFC function in humans. Twenty healthy adults, exposed to 1 month of psychosocial stress, confirmed by a validated rating scale, were scanned while performing a PFC-dependent attention-shifting task. One month later, they returned for a second scanning session after a period of reduced stress, and their performance was compared with a twice-scanned, matched group of low-stress controls. Psychosocial stress selectively impaired attentional control and disrupted functional connectivity within a frontoparietal network that mediates attention shifts. These effects were reversible: after one month of reduced stress, the same subjects showed no significant differences from controls. These results highlight the plasticity of PFC networks in healthy human subjects and suggest one mechanism by which disrupted plasticity may contribute to cognitive impairments characteristic of stress-related neuropsychiatric conditions in susceptible individuals.