Impaired memory retrieval after psychosocial stress in healthy young men

J Neurosci. 2005 Mar 16;25(11):2977-82. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5139-04.2005.


Glucocorticoids (GCs) are known to modulate memory in animals and humans. One popular model suggests that stress or GC treatment enhances memory consolidation while impairing delayed memory retrieval. Studies in humans have documented that treatment with GCs impairs delayed memory retrieval. Similar alterations after exposure to stress have not been observed thus far. In the present study, 19 young healthy male subjects were exposed to either a standardized psychosocial laboratory stressor (Trier Social Stress Test) or a control condition in a crossover manner. After both treatments, retrieval of a word list (learned 24 h earlier) containing 10 neutral, 10 negative, and 10 positive words was tested. The stressor induced a significant increase in salivary free cortisol and a decrease in mood. Memory retrieval (free recall) was significantly impaired after the stress condition. Follow-up analysis revealed that negative and positive words (i.e., emotionally arousing words) were affected, whereas no effect was observed for neutral words. No changes were detected for cued recall, working memory, or attention. The present study thus demonstrates that psychosocial stress impairs memory retrieval in humans and suggests that emotionally arousing material is especially sensitive to this effect.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / etiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests / statistics & numerical data
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*


  • Hydrocortisone