Cortical and Autonomic Stress Responses in Adults with High Versus Low Levels of Trait Anxiety: A Pilot Study
Stress responses are mediated by complex patterns of cortical and autonomic activity. Earlier studies showed increased recruitment of the right prefrontal cortex (PFC) and parasympathetic withdrawal during a stress task; however, it remains unclear whether these responses change in relation to different levels of psychopathological symptoms, such as trait anxiety. The present study examines the effect of a mathematical task (with a control condition and a stressful/experimental condition) on the PFC and autonomic activity, using a two-channel near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and an ECG monitoring system. After a preliminary screening of 65 subjects, a sample of 12 individuals (6 with the highest and 6 with the lowest scores on an anxiety questionnaire, i.e. the STAI trait) was selected. The two groups were similar regarding demographic variables (age, sex, body mass index) and baseline STAI-state scores. Repeated measures ANOVAs were used to compare changes from baseline in oxyhemoglobin (oxy-Hb), heart rate (HR) and root mean square of successive differences (RMSSD) between the two groups. Individuals affected by high levels of trait anxiety showed a reduced bilateral PFC activity during the entire experimental procedure compared to those with low anxiety. No differences in NIRS channels were found between the two groups. During both conditions, RMSSD was lower among individuals affected by high levels of anxious symptoms. Finally, throughout the procedure, changes in HR were higher in the anxious group. Overall, these findings suggest a reduced PFC activity and a larger parasympathetic withdrawal during a stress task in individuals with high levels of trait anxiety compared to those with low anxiety. These results could represent a starting point for future NIRS and ECG studies on the relationship between mental disorders and acute stress responses.
KeywordsNIRS Trait Anxiety RMSSD STAI PFC
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