The hormones of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis influence memory in situations of acute and chronic stress. The present review tries to summarize the current state of knowledge by describing the enhancing as well as the impairing effects of stress or glucocorticoid (GC) treatment documented in animals and humans. GCs secreted during the acquisition of a stressful task facilitate consolidation. However, acute stress (or GC treatment) unrelated to the task impairs performance. The effects of acute stress are additionally modulated by gender, age and the emotional valence of the learning material. Chronic stress in rodents has mostly impairing effects on memory and hippocampal integrity. However, other regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, are also sensitive to stress. In humans, similar observations have been reported in several patient populations as well as in older subjects. The potential to reverse these effects using behavioural or pharmacological approaches needs to be explored.