The dopaminergic response to acute stress in health and psychopathology: A systematic review

Thomas Vaessen*, Dennis Hernaus, Inez Myin-Germeys, Therese van Amelsvoort

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Previous work in animals has shown that dopamine (DA) in cortex and striatum plays an essential role in stress processing. For the first time, we systematically reviewed the in vivo evidence for DAergic stress processing in health and psychopathology in humans. All studies included (n studies = 25, n observations = 324) utilized DA D2/3 positron emission tomography and measured DAergic activity during an acute stress challenge. The evidence in healthy volunteers (HV) suggests that physiological, but not psychological, stress consistently increases striatal DA release. Instead, increased medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) DAergic activity in HV was observed during psychological stress. Across brain regions, stress-related DAergic activity was correlated with the physiological and psychological intensity of the stressor. The magnitude of stress-induced DA release was dependent on rearing conditions, personality traits and genetic variations in several SNPs. In psychopathology, preliminary evidence was found for stress-related dorsal striatal DAergic hyperactivity in psychosis spectrum and a blunted response in chronic cannabis use and pain-related disorders, but results were inconsistent. Physiological stress-induced DAergic activity in striatum in HV may reflect somatosensory properties of the stressor and readiness for active fight-or-flight behavior. DAergic activity in HV in the ventral striatum and mPFC may be more related to expectations about the stressor and threat evaluation, respectively. Future studies with increased sample size in HV and psychopathology assessing the functional relevance of stress-induced DAergic activity, the association between cortical and subcortical DAergic activity and the direct comparison of different stressors are necessary to conclusively elucidate the role of the DA system in the stress response.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)241-251
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2015


  • Stress
  • Dopamine
  • PET
  • Imaging
  • Striatum
  • PFC

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