The effects of psychosocial stress on dopaminergic function and the acute stress response

Michael A. P. Bloomfield, Robert A. McCutcheon, Matthew Kempton, Tom P. Freeman, Oliver Howes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (SciVal)


Chronic psychosocial adversity induces vulnerability to mental illnesses. Animal studies demonstrate that this may be mediated by dopaminergic dysfunction. We therefore investigated whether long-term exposure to psychosocial adversity was associated with dopamine dysfunction and its relationship to psychological and physiological responses to acute stress. Using 3,4-dihydroxy-6-[18F]-fluoro-l-phenylalanine ([18F]-DOPA) positron emission tomography (PET), we compared dopamine synthesis capacity in n = 17 human participants with high cumulative exposure to psychosocial adversity with n = 17 age- and sex-matched participants with low cumulative exposure. The PET scan took place 2 hr after the induction of acute psychosocial stress using the Montréal Imaging Stress Task to induce acute psychosocial stress. We found that dopamine synthesis correlated with subjective threat and physiological response to acute psychosocial stress in the low exposure group. Long-term exposure to psychosocial adversity was associated with dampened striatal dopaminergic function (p=0.03, d = 0.80) and that psychosocial adversity blunted physiological yet potentiated subjective responses to acute psychosocial stress. Future studies should investigate the roles of these changes in vulnerability to mental illnesses.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 12 Nov 2019


  • adversity
  • human
  • imaging
  • neuroscience
  • PET
  • psychosocial
  • stress
  • threat

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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