Stress hormones and human memory function across the lifespan

Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Apr;30(3):225-42. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2004.08.003.


In this paper, we summarize the data obtained in our laboratory showing the effects of glucocorticoids on human cognitive function in older adults, young adults and children. We first present data obtained in the aged human population which showed that long-term exposure to high endogenous levels of glucocorticoids is associated with both memory impairments and a 14% smaller volume of the hippocampus. We then report on studies showing that in older adults with moderate levels of glucocorticoids, memory performance can be acutely modulated by pharmacological manipulations of glucocorticoids. In young adults, we present data obtained in our laboratory showing that cognitive processing sustained by the frontal lobes is also sensitive to acute increases of glucocorticoids. We also summarize studies showing that just as in older adults, memory performance in young adults can be acutely modulated by pharmacological manipulations of glucocorticoids. We then present a study in which we showed a differential involvement of adrenergic and glucocorticoid hormones for short- and long-term memory of neutral and emotional information. In the last section of the paper, we present data obtained in a population of young children and teenagers from low and high socioeconomic status (SES), where we showed that children from low SES present significantly higher levels of basal cortisol when compared to children from high SES. We then present new data obtained in this population showing that children and teenagers from low and high SES do not process the plausibility of positive and negative attributes in the same way. Children from low SES tended to process positive and negative attributes on a more negative note than children from high SES, and this type of processing was significantly related to basal cortisol at age 10, 12 and 14. Altogether, the results of these studies show that both bottom-up (effects of glucocorticoids on cognitive function), and top-down (effects of cognitive processing on glucocorticoid secretion) effects exist in the human population.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Glucocorticoids / physiology*
  • Hippocampus / anatomy & histology
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Organ Size
  • Rats
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*


  • Glucocorticoids