The effects of stress and stress hormones on human cognition: Implications for the field of brain and cognition

Brain Cogn. 2007 Dec;65(3):209-37. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2007.02.007. Epub 2007 Apr 26.


In this review, we report on studies that have assessed the effects of exogenous and endogenous increases in stress hormones on human cognitive performance. We first describe the history of the studies on the effects of using exogenous stress hormones such as glucocorticoids as anti-inflammatory medications on human cognition and mental health. Here, we summarize the cases that led to the diagnosis of glucocorticoid-induced 'steroid psychosis' in human populations and which demonstrated that these stress hormones could thus cross the blood-brain barrier and access the brain where they could influence cognition and mental health. We then summarize studies that assessed the effects of the exogenous administration of glucocorticoids on cognitive performance supported by the hippocampus, the frontal lobes and amygdala. In the second section of the paper, we summarize the effects of the endogenous release of glucocorticoids induced by exposure to a stressful situation on human cognition and we further dissociate the effects of emotion from those of stress on human learning and memory. Finally, in the last section of the paper, we discuss the potential impact that the environmental context to which we expose participants when assessing their memory could have on their reactivity to stress and subsequent cognitive performance. In order to make our point, we discuss the field of memory and aging and we suggest that some of the 'age-related memory impairments' observed in the literature could be partly due to increased stress reactivity in older adults to the environmental context of testing. We also discuss the inverse negative correlations reported between hippocampal volume and memory for young and older adults and suggest that these inverse correlations could be partly due to the effects of contextual stress in young and older adults, as a function of age-related differences in hippocampal volume.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Glucocorticoids / adverse effects
  • Glucocorticoids / metabolism*
  • Hippocampus / anatomy & histology
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Humans
  • Neuroendocrinology / history*
  • Neurosecretory Systems
  • Psychotic Disorders / etiology
  • Psychotic Disorders / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / complications
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism*


  • Glucocorticoids