Mental stress often begins with a sudden sensory (or internal) stimulus causing a brief arousal reaction, and is followed by a more long lasting stress phase. Both arousal and stress regularly induce blood pressure (BP) increases whereas effects on muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) are variable. Here we have compared responses of MSNA and BP during arousal induced by an electrical skin stimulus and mental stress evoked by a 3 min paced auditory serial arithmetic test (PASAT) in 30 healthy males aged 33 ± 10 years. In addition, recordings were made of ECG, respiratory movements, electrodermal activity and perceived stress. We also monitored corresponding effects of a cold test (CT: 2 min immersion of a hand in ice water). The arousal stimulus evoked significant inhibition of one or two MSNA bursts in 16 subjects, who were classified as responders; the remaining 14 subjects were non-responders. During mental stress responders showed a significant decrease of MSNA and a lesser BP increase compared to non-responders. In non-responders MSNA was unchanged or increased. Perceived stress was higher in non-responders (P= 0.056), but other measures were similar in the two groups. In non-responders mental stress and the cold test induced increases of BP that lasted throughout the subsequent rest period. During the cold test MSNA and BP increased equally in responders and non-responders. In the whole group of subjects, there was a significant correlation (r= 0.80, P <0.001) between MSNA responses induced by arousal and by mental stress but not between responses evoked by arousal and the cold test (r <0.1, P > 0.6). Additionally arousal-induced MSNA change was positively correlated with blood pressure changes during MS (systolic BP: r= 0.48; P <0.01; diastolic BP: r= 0.42; P <0.05) but not with blood pressure changes during CT. We conclude that in males the MSNA response to arousal predicts the MSNA and BP responses to mental stress.
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