The study of the stress response has been of great interest in the last decades due to its relationship to physical and mental health. Along with the technological progress in the neurosciences, different methods of stress induction have been developed for the special requirements regarding the acquisition of neuroimaging data. However, these paradigms often differ from ecologically valid stress inductions such as the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) in substantial ways.
In the study at hand, we used the rather robust optical imaging method of functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to assess brain activation during the TSST and two non-stressful control conditions. Additionally, we measured other stress parameters including the cortisol response and subjective stress ratings. As expected we found significant increases in subjective and physiological stress measures during the TSST in comparison to the baseline and control conditions. We found higher activation in parts of the cognitive control network (CCN) and dorsal attention network (DAN) – comprising the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the inferior frontal gyrus and superior parietal cortex – during the performance of the TSST in comparison to the control conditions. Further, calculation errors during the TSST as well as subjective and physiological stress parameters correlated significantly with the activation in the CCN. Our study confirms the validity of previous neuroimaging data obtained from adapted stress procedures by providing cortical activation data during a classical stress induction paradigm (i.e., the TSST) for the first time.