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Published May 2006 | Published
Journal Article Open

Impaired memory retrieval correlates with individual differences in cortisol response but not autonomic response


Stress can enhance or impair memory performance. Both cortisol release and sympathetic nervous system responses have been implicated in these differential effects. Here we investigated how memory retrieval might be affected by stress-induced cortisol release, independently of sympathetic nervous system stress responses. Thirty-two healthy participants (16 women) learned emotionally arousing and neutral words. One hour later, half of the participants underwent a stressor (cold pressor test) and the other half, a control warm water exposure, both followed by a delayed free recall task. The stressed participants were split into those who did (responders, N = 8) and those who did not (nonresponders, N = 6) show a cortisol response. Both responders and nonresponders showed comparable sympathetic nervous system activity (skin conductance level) during the cold pressor. The cortisol responders recalled significantly fewer words compared to nonresponders, and compared to control participants; this effect was most pronounced for moderately arousing words (compared to highly arousing and neutral words). These results suggest that individual differences in cortisol reactivity affect memory retrieval performance, and help to explain the differential effects of stress on memory.

Additional Information

© 2006 Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. The Authors acknowledge that six months after the full-issue publication date, the Article will be distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC License (Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/). Received December 9, 2005. Accepted February 28, 2006. This study was supported by the following grants: MH067681 from National Institute of Mental Health and NS19632 from National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The authors thank Clemens Kirschbaum for conducting the cortisol assays.

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