Psychosocial stress impairs working memory at high loads: an association with cortisol levels and memory retrieval

Stress. 2006 Sep;9(3):133-41. doi: 10.1080/10253890600965773.


Stress and cortisol are known to impair memory retrieval of well-consolidated declarative material. The effects of cortisol on memory retrieval may in particular be due to glucocorticoid (GC) receptors in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (PFC). Therefore, effects of stress and cortisol should be observable on both hippocampal-dependent declarative memory retrieval and PFC-dependent working memory (WM). In the present study, it was tested whether psychosocial stress would impair both WM and memory retrieval in 20 young healthy men. In addition, the association between cortisol levels and cognitive performance was assessed. It was found that stress impaired WM at high loads, but not at low loads in a Sternberg paradigm. High cortisol levels at the time of testing were associated with slow WM performance at high loads, and with impaired recall of moderately emotional, but not of highly emotional paragraphs. Furthermore, performance at high WM loads was associated with memory retrieval. These data extend previous results of pharmacological studies in finding WM impairments after acute stress at high workloads and cortisol-related retrieval impairments.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / blood*
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Memory Disorders / psychology*
  • Patient Selection
  • Psychological Tests
  • Reaction Time
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Speech
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Wechsler Scales


  • Biomarkers
  • Hydrocortisone