BACKGROUND: An adaptive neural stress response is essential to adequately cope with a changing environment. It was previously argued that sympathetic/noradrenergic activity during acute stress increases salience network (SN) connectivity and reduces executive control network (ECN) connectivity in healthy controls, with opposing effects in the late aftermath of stress. Altered temporal dynamics of these networks in response to stress are thought to play a role in the development of psychopathology in vulnerable individuals.
METHODS: We exposed male healthy controls (n = 40, mean age = 33.9) and unaffected siblings of schizophrenia patients (n = 39, mean age = 33.2) to the stress or control condition of the trier social stress test and subsequently investigated resting state functional connectivity of the SN and ECN directly after and 1.5 h after stress.
RESULTS: Acute stress resulted in increased functional connectivity within the SN in healthy controls, but not in siblings (group × stress interaction pfwe < 0.05). In the late aftermath of stress, stress reduced functional connectivity within the SN in both groups. Moreover, we found increased functional connectivity between the ECN and the cerebellum in the aftermath of stress in both healthy controls and siblings of schizophrenia patients.
CONCLUSIONS: The results show profound differences between siblings of schizophrenia patients and controls during acute stress. Siblings lacked the upregulation of neural resources necessary to quickly and adequately cope with a stressor. This points to a reduced dynamic range in the sympathetic response, and may constitute a vulnerability factor for the development of psychopathology in this at-risk group.