Background: Acute stress is a stereotypical, but multimodal response to a present or imminent challenge overcharging an organism. Among the different branches of this multimodal response, the consequences of glucocorticoid secretion have been extensively investigated, mostly in connection with long-term memory (LTM). However, stress responses comprise other endocrine signaling and altered neuronal activity wholly independent of pituitary regulation. To date, knowledge of the impact of such ‘‘paracorticoidal’’ stress responses on higher cognitive functions is scarce. We investigated the impact of an ecological stressor on the ability to direct selective attention using event-related potentials in humans. Based on research in rodents, we assumed that a stress-induced imbalance of catecholaminergic transmission would impair this ability.
Methodology/Principal Findings: The stressor consisted of a single cold pressor test. Auditory negative difference (Nd) and mismatch negativity (MMN) were recorded in a tonal dichotic listening task. A time series of such tasks confirmed an increased distractibility occuring 4–7 minutes after onset of the stressor as reflected by an attenuated Nd. Salivary cortisol began to rise 8–11 minutes after onset when no further modulations in the event-related potentials (ERP) occurred, thus precluding a causal relationship. This effect may be attributed to a stress-induced activation of mesofrontal dopaminergic projections. It may also be attributed to an activation of noradrenergic projections. Known characteristics of the modulation of ERP by different stress-related ligands were used for further disambiguation of causality. The conjuncture of an attenuated Nd and an increased MMN might be interpreted as indicating a dopaminergic influence. The selective effect on the late portion of the Nd provides another tentative clue for this.
Conclusions/Significance: Prior studies have deliberately tracked the adrenocortical influence on cognition, as it has proven most influential with respect to LTM. However, current cortisol-optimized study designs would have failed to detect the present findings regarding attention.