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Interdisciplinary research at HKBU reveals stress related brain reconfiguration


brain networks

A key study on changes in brain networks under stress was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The interdisciplinary research was conducted by teams of Prof Changsong Zhou from the Department of Physics and Dr Rongjun Yu from the Department of Management at HKBU, with Dr Rong Wang, Hong Kong Scholars Program, and Dr Shanshan Zhen, Research Assistant Professor, Department of Management, as major collaborators.  Dr Zhou and Dr Yu are also members of the System Health Lab, one of the HKBU’s six transdisciplinary research labs.


How the brain responds to acute stress has always been a major area of scientific interest. Previous research has mainly focused on the activation of specific brain areas under stress, or based on modules at a single level. In this project, the researchers examined stress-induced functional reconfiguration based on hierarchical modules using a within-subject design. To induce stress, participants were asked to describe themselves to the experimenter while being video recorded, before being instructed to rapidly perform an arithmetic subtraction task. Afterwards, participants entered the 3T MRI machine, where they undergo resting-state scanning and a series of cognitive-control tasks. Saliva samples were collected throughout the experiment. Saliva cortisol concentration was used as a physiological marker of stress level, while performance in the cognitive-control task was to indicate behavioural responses to stress. The study shows that in response to an acute social stressor, the brain can dynamically maintain a more integrated and less segregated state. Such changes in brain networks are associated with elevated cortisol levels and improved cognitive-control performance. The findings have theoretical and clinical implications for stress-related psychiatric disorders. 


The research findings were published in PNAS:


Fig 1

Fig 1.

The cortisol responses were collected at different experiment time point

Fig 2

Fig 2.

The dynamic transition between segregated and integrated states was measured by the time-resolved.

About the System Health Lab

The System Health Lab unites HKBU’s research strength and provides multidisciplinary research collaboration in the basic disciplines such as mathematics, physics, chemical biology, together with the applied disciplines like physiology and medicine, geography, social sciences and communications, to explore the behavioral and wellbeing functioning mechanisms of complex systems including life, environment, human society and web media. This cross-disciplinary research platform is the first of its kind in China and promises great impact to the communities.  HKBU has recently purchased a 3T MRI scanner, EEG, and other related neuroscience devices in association to the System Health Lab


About the researchers


Dr Rongjun YU

Dr Rongjun Yu is an Associate Professor of the Department of Management. His research interests include Neuroeconomics, Social neuroscience, Computational Psychiatry, Aging, and Child Development. His lab mainly uses brain imaging methods (fMRI/EEG/fNIRS) combined with experimental tasks to study the neuropsychological mechanisms of economic and social decision making. He has published more than 120 research papers in peer-reviewed journals, with over 4,800 citations (Google Scholar). He is the associate editor of Neurobiology of Stress (IF=5.4). His lab uses neuroimaging and behavioural experiments to study the mechanisms of decision-making. Lab website:


Prof Changsong Zhou

Prof Changsong Zhou is Head and Professor of Physics, Director of the Centre for Nonlinear Studies, and Deputy Director of the Institute of Theoretical and Computational Studies. His research interest is dynamical processes on complex systems. His recent research emphasizes on combining the approaches of mathematical modeling, computer simulations and analysis of experimental or empirical data to achieve a more quantitative and systems level understanding of various complex systems, such as collective human interaction activity and neural dynamics. His current focus is on analysis and modeling complex neural connectivity and activity and the relevance in brain functions and cognition through close collaboration with experimental neuroscientists or cognitive scientists, using the approaches of oscillatory dynamics networks and covering broad scales from networks of excitation-inhibition neurons to interacting functional brain regions, functional EEG, cognitive variability and disorders. He has published more than 150 research papers in peer-reviewed journals, with over 16,200 citations (Google Scholar). Lab website: