This study investigated whether chronic stress-induced spatial memory deficits were caused by changes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, such as corticosterone (CORT) elevations on the day of memory assessment, rather than the consequence of structural changes in the hippocampus. Male Sprague-Dawley rats were restrained for 6 h/day/21 days, and spatial memory was assessed on the Y-maze on day 22. Ninety minutes before training, rats received a subcutaneous injection of vehicle or metyrapone, a CORT synthesis inhibitor, and then spatial memory was determined 4-h later. The highest dose of metyrapone (75 mg/kg, s.c.) was most effective at preventing stress-induced spatial memory deficits. Chronic stress increased total CORT levels following Y-maze exposure, while acute metyrapone treatment dose-dependently attenuated total and free (unbound) CORT levels in both stress and control conditions. Blood samples taken from a separate subset of chronically stressed rats showed that baseline CORT levels were similar across the restraint period. Finally, chronic stress down-regulated glucocorticoid, but not mineralocorticoid, receptor mRNA expression within the hippocampus (dentate gyrus, CA1, CA2, CA3). These findings suggest that chronic stress-induced spatial memory deficits may be mediated by hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis dysregulation. Specifically, CORT elevations and reductions in hippocampal glucocorticoid receptor expression, at the time of behavioural assessment may be involved, as opposed to a direct effect that is solely dependent upon hippocampal structural changes. These results have significance for treating cognitive decline in conditions associated with elevated glucocorticoids that include subpopulations in ageing, depression, Cushing's disease and Alzheimer's disease.