The modulatory effects of corticosteroids on cognition: studies in young human populations

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2002 Apr;27(3):401-16. doi: 10.1016/s0306-4530(01)00061-0.


In the present article, we report on two studies performed in young human populations which tested the cognitive impact of glucocorticoids (GC) in situations of decreased or increased ratio of mineralocorticoid (MR) and glucocorticoid (GR) receptor occupation. In the first study, we used a hormone replacement protocol in which we pharmacologically decreased cortisol levels by administration of metyrapone and then restored baseline cortisol levels by a subsequent hydrocortisone replacement treatment. Memory function was tested after each pharmacological manipulation. We observed that metyrapone treatment significantly impaired delayed recall, while hydrocortisone replacement restored performance at placebo level. In the second study, we took advantage of the circadian variation of circulating levels in cortisol and tested the impact of a bolus injection of 35 mg of hydrocortisone in the late afternoon, at a time of very low cortisol concentrations. In a previous study with young normal controls, we injected a similar dose of hydrocortisone in the morning, at the time of the circadian peak, and reported detrimental effects of GC on cognitive function. Here, when we injected a similar dose of hydrocortisone in the afternoon, at the time of the circadian trough, we observed positive effects of GC on memory function. The results of these two studies provide evidence that GC are necessary for learning and memory in human populations.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone / blood
  • Adult
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Circadian Rhythm / drug effects
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Hydrocortisone / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / drug effects*
  • Metyrapone / pharmacology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid / drug effects*
  • Retention, Psychology / drug effects*
  • Verbal Learning / drug effects


  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid
  • Adrenocorticotropic Hormone
  • Hydrocortisone
  • Metyrapone