The Influence of Menstrual Cycle and Androstadienone on Female Stress Reactions: An fMRI Study
Communicating threats and stress via biological signaling is common in animals. In humans, androstadienone (ANDR), a synthetic male steroid, is a socially relevant chemosignal exhibited to increase positive mood and cortisol levels specifically in (periovulatory) females in positively arousing contexts. In a negative context, we expected that such effects of ANDR could amplify social evaluative threat depending on the stress sensitivity, which differs between menstrual cycle phases. Therefore, this fMRI study aimed to examine psychosocial stress reactions on behavioral, hormonal and neural levels in 31 naturally cycling females, between 15 early follicular (EF) and 16 mid-luteal (ML) females tested with ANDR and placebo treatment in a repeated-measures design. Regardless of odor stimulation, psychosocial stress (i.e., mental arithmetic task with social evaluative threat) led to elevated negative mood and anxiety in all females. A negative association of social threat related amygdala activation and competence ratings appeared in ML-females, indicating enhanced threat processing by ANDR, particularly in ML-females who felt less competent early in the stress experience. Further, ML-females showed reduced performance and stronger stress-related hippocampus activation compared to EF-females under ANDR. Hippocampal activation in ML-females also correlated positively with post-stress subjective stress. Contrarily, such patterns were not observed in EF-females or under placebo in either group. Strikingly, unlike passive emotional processing, ANDR in a stressful context decreased cortisol concentration in all females. This points to a more complex interaction of ovarian/gonadal hormones in social threat processing and stress reactivity. Our findings suggest that ANDR enhanced initial evaluation of self-related social threat in ML-females. Female stress reactions are related to stress sensitivity through enhanced awareness and processing of social cues in a stressful context, with menstrual cycle phase being a critical factor.