Acute psychosocial stress increases serum BDNF levels: an antagonistic relation to cortisol but no group differences after mental training


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is an essential facilitator of neuronal plasticity. By counteracting the adverse effects of excessive stress-induced glucocorticoid signaling, BDNF has been implicated as a resilience factor to psychopathology caused by chronic stress. Insights into the effects of acute stress on peripheral BDNF levels in humans are inconclusive. The short-term interplay between BDNF and cortisol in response to acute psychosocial stress remains unexplored. Furthermore, it is unknown whether mental training that is effective at reducing cortisol reactivity can also influence BDNF during acute stress. In the current study, we investigated serum BDNF levels during an acute psychosocial stress paradigm, the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), in 301 healthy participants (178 women, mean age = 40.65) recruited as part of the ReSource Project, a large-scale mental training study consisting of three distinct 3-month training modules. Using a cross-sectional study design, we first examined the relationship between BDNF and salivary cortisol in a control group with no mental training. Subsequent analyses focused on differences in BDNF stress levels between control and mental training groups. We show that serum BDNF is indeed stress-sensitive, characterized by a significant post-stress increase and subsequent decline to recovery. While respective increases in BDNF and cortisol were not associated, we found two indications for an antagonistic relationship. Higher BDNF peaks after stress were associated with steeper cortisol recovery. On the other hand, the magnitude of the cortisol stress response was linked to steeper BDNF recovery after stress. BDNF levels were not modulated by any of the mental training modules. Providing novel evidence for the dynamics of BDNF and cortisol during acute stress, our findings may further inform research on the physiological mechanisms involved in stress chronification and the associated health risks.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analyzed for the current study are not publicly available due to ongoing analyses in the context of the large-scale ReSource Project. The data are available upon request for replication purposes.


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We are thankful to the members of the Social Neuroscience Department involved in the ReSource Project over many years, in particular to Astrid Ackermann, Christina Bochow, Matthias Bolz, and Sandra Zurborg for managing the large-scale longitudinal study, to Elisabeth Murzik, Nadine Otto, Sylvia Tydecks, and Kerstin Träger for help with recruiting and data archiving, to Henrik Grunert for technical assistance, and to Hannes Niederhausen and Torsten Kästner for data management. Thank you also to the research assistants and students, especially Anna Koester, whose help with data collection was indispensable.

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TS initiated and developed the ReSource Project and secured all funding with the exception of the BDNF analysis. TS and VE designed the experiment. Data collection and statistical analyses were performed by RL and VE. GPC funded and IP, FA and EM performed the BDNF assay. RL drafted and all authors contributed to writing the manuscript and approved its final version for submission.

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Correspondence to R. Linz.

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Linz, R., Puhlmann, L.M.C., Apostolakou, F. et al. Acute psychosocial stress increases serum BDNF levels: an antagonistic relation to cortisol but no group differences after mental training. Neuropsychopharmacol. 44, 1797–1804 (2019).

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