Stress can exacerbate a number of psychiatric disorders, many of which are associated with prefrontal cortical (PFC) cognitive deficits. Biochemical studies demonstrate that mild stress preferentially increases dopamine turnover in the PFC. Our study examined the effects of acute, mild stress exposure on higher cognitive function in monkeys and the role of dopaminergic mechanisms in the stress response.Methods
The effects of loud (105-dB) noise stress were examined on a spatial working memory task (delayed response) dependent on the PFC, and on a reference memory task with similar motor and motivational demands (visual pattern discrimination) dependent on the inferior temporal cortex. The role of dopamine mechanisms was tested by challenging the stress response with agents that decrease dopamine receptor stimulation.Results
Exposure to noise stress significantly impaired delayed-response performance. Stress did not impair performance on "0-second" delay control trials and did not alter visual pattern discrimination performance, which is consistent with impaired PFC cognitive function rather than nonspecific changes in performance. Stress-induced deficits in delayed-response performance were ameliorated by pretreatment with drugs that block dopamine receptors (haloperidol, SCH 23390) or reduce stress-induced PFC dopamine turnover in rodents (clonidine, naloxone hydrochloride).Conclusions
These results indicate that stress impairs PFC cognitive function through a hyperdopaminergic mechanism. Stress may take the PFC "off-line" to allow more habitual responses mediated by posterior cortical and subcortical structures to regulate behavior. This mechanism may have survival value, but may often be maladaptive in human society, contributing to the vulnerability of the PFC in many neuropsychiatric disorders.