Cortisol mediates the effects of stress on the contextual dependency of memories

V.A. van Ast, S. Cornelisse, M. Meeter, M. Kindt

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Stress is known to exert considerable impact on learning and memory processes. Typically, human studies have investigated memory for single items (e.g., pictures, words), but it remains unresolved how exactly stress may alter the storage of memories into their original encoding context (i.e., memory contextualization). Since neurocircuitry underlying memory contextualization processes is sensitive to the well-known stress hormone cortisol, we here investigated whether cortisol mediates stress effects on memory contextualization. Forty healthy young men were randomly assigned to a psychosocial stress or control group. Ten minutes after stress manipulation offset, participants were instructed to learn and remember neutral and negative words, each of which was depicted against a unique background picture. Approximately 24. h later, memory was tested by means of cued retrieval and recognition tasks. To assess memory contextualization half of the words were tested in intact item-contexts pairs, and half in rearranged item-context combinations. Recognition data showed that cortisol, but no other indices of stress such as heart rate or subjective stress, mediated the effects of stress on contextualization of neutral and negative memories. The mediation analysis further showed that stress resulted in increases in cortisol and that cortisol was positively related to memory contextualization, but unrelated to other measures of memory. Thus, there seems to be a specific role for cortisol in the integration of a central memory into its surrounding context. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)97-110
Issue number41c
Publication statusPublished - 2014


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