Image_2_Acute Stress Attenuates Cognitive Flexibility in Males Only: An fNIRS Examination.jpeg

Cognitive processes that afford us the ability to control thoughts and achieve goal-directed behavior are known as executive functions. Empirical evidence in the past few years has demonstrated that executive functions can be influenced by acute stress. The impact of acute stress on cognitive flexibility, a key aspect of executive functions, has received little attention in the literature. We present the results of two experiments conducted to examine the effect of acute stress on cognitive flexibility. Acute stress was induced using the cold pressor task. Cognitive flexibility was assessed using the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST). Across both experiments acute stress had an attenuating effect on task switching on the WCST. Our findings also indicate that this effect was moderated by the participant’s gender. In Study 1, we observed that following stress exposure male participants in the stress condition made more perseverative errors than participants in the control group. In Study 2, we examined the bilateral hemodynamics in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) during acute stress induction using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). Our analysis indicated that functional oxyHb signals fluctuated with greater amplitude than systemic components for participants in the stress group relative to those in the control group. In addition, oxyHb levels post stress induction were correlated with performance on the WCST for the male participants in the stress group only. Concordant with previous reports, our findings indicate that acute stress impacts cognitive flexibility in males and females differentially. Our work also demonstrates the feasibility of using fNIRS as a practical and objective technique for the examination of hemodynamics in the PFC during acute stress.