Beta-adrenergic modulation of cognitive flexibility during stress

J Cogn Neurosci. 2007 Mar;19(3):468-78. doi: 10.1162/jocn.2007.19.3.468.


Stress-induced activation of the locus ceruleus-norepinephrine (LC-NE) system produces significant cognitive and behavioral effects, including enhanced arousal and attention. Improvements in discrimination task performance and memory have been attributed to this stress response. In contrast, for other cognitive functions that require cognitive flexibility, increased activity of the LC-NE system may produce deleterious effects. The aim of the present study was to determine the effect of pharmacological modulation of the LC-NE system on stress-induced impairments in cognitive flexibility performance in healthy individuals. Cognitive performance, plus psychological and physiological parameters for 16 adults without any history of anxiety disorders, was assessed during four test sessions: stress and no-stress, with each condition tested after administration of propranolol and placebo. The Trier Social Stress Test, a public-speaking and mental arithmetic stressor, was presented to participants for the stress sessions, whereas a similar, but nonstressful, control task (reading, counting) was utilized for the no-stress sessions. Tests of cognitive flexibility included lexical-semantic and associative problem-solving tasks (anagrams, Compound Remote Associates Test). Visuo-spatial memory and motor processing speed tests served as control tasks. Results indicate that (1) stress impaired performance on cognitive flexibility tasks, but not control tasks; (2) compared to placebo, cognitive flexibility improved during stress with propranolol. Therefore, psychological stress, such as public speaking, negatively impacts performance on tasks requiring cognitive flexibility in normal individuals, and this effect is reversed by beta-adrenergic antagonism. This may provide support for the hypothesis that stress-related impairments in cognitive flexibility are related to the noradrenergic system.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Adult
  • Blood Pressure / drug effects
  • Blood Pressure / physiology
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology
  • Propranolol / pharmacology
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta / physiology*
  • Social Environment
  • Space Perception / drug effects
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*


  • Adrenergic beta-Antagonists
  • Receptors, Adrenergic, beta
  • Propranolol