Effects of pre-learning stress on memory for neutral, positive and negative words: Different roles of cortisol and autonomic arousal

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2008 Jul;90(1):44-53. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2008.02.002. Epub 2008 Mar 10.


Stress can have enhancing or impairing effects on memory. Here, we addressed the effect of pre-learning stress on subsequent memory and asked whether neutral and emotionally valent information are differentially affected by specific stress components, autonomic arousal and stress-induced cortisol. Ninety-six healthy men and women underwent either a stressor (modified cold pressor test) or a control warm water exposure. During stress, participants showed comparable autonomic arousal (heart rate, blood pressure), while 60 percent showed an increase of cortisol (responders vs. 40 percent non-responders). Ten minutes after the cold pressor test neutral, positive and negative words were presented. Free recall was tested 1 and 24h later. Overall, positive and negative words were better recalled than neutral words. Stress enhanced the recall of neutral words independently of cortisol response. In contrast, the free recall of negative words was enhanced in cortisol responders in the 1-h but not 24-h test which might suggest different effects of cortisol on consolidation and reconsolidation processes. Recall for positive words was unaffected by stress-induced cortisol. To summarize, (i) pre-learning stress can enhance memory for neutral words independently of cortisol and (ii) stress effects on memory for negative words appear to rely on stress-induced cortisol elevations, the absence of this effect for positive words might be at least partly due to differences in arousal evoked by positive vs. negative words.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Blood Pressure
  • Cold Temperature
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*
  • Saliva / metabolism
  • Semantics
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*


  • Hydrocortisone