Stress and memory in humans: twelve years of progress?

Brain Res. 2009 Oct 13:1293:142-54. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2009.04.013. Epub 2009 Apr 17.


Stress leads to an enhanced activity of the hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis resulting in an increased release of glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex. These hormones influence target systems in the periphery as well as in the brain. The present review paper describes the impact of the human stress hormone cortisol on episodic long-term memory. Starting out with our early observation that stress as well as cortisol treatment impaired declarative memory, experiments by the author are described, which result in an enhanced understanding of how cortisol influences memory. The main conclusions are that stress or cortisol treatment temporarily blocks memory retrieval. The effect is stronger for emotional arousing material independent of its valence. In addition cortisol only influences memory when a certain amount of testing induced arousal occurs. A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study suggests that the neuronal correlate of the cortisol induced retrieval blockade is a reduced activity of the hippocampus. In contrast to the effects on retrieval cortisol enhances memory consolidation. Again this effect is often stronger for emotionally arousing material and sometimes occurs at the cost of memory for neutral material. A fMRI study revealed that higher cortisol levels were associated with a stronger amygdala response to emotional stimuli. Thus stimulatory effects of cortisol on this structure might underlie the cortisol induced enhancement of emotional memory consolidation. The findings presented are in line with models derived from experiments in rodents and are of relevance for our understanding of stress associated psychiatric disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Amygdala / metabolism
  • Amygdala / physiopathology*
  • Animals
  • Hippocampus / metabolism
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiopathology
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / metabolism
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiopathology
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*


  • Hydrocortisone