Background: The glucocorticoid (GC) hormone cortisol is the end product of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). Acute psychological stress increases HPA activity and GC release. In humans, chronic disturbances in HPA activity have been observed in affective disorders and in addictive behaviour. Recent research indicates that acute effects of GCs may be anxiolytic and increase reward sensitivity. Furthermore, cortisol acutely influences early cognitive processing of emotional stimuli.
Methods: In order to extend such findings to more complex emotional-cognitive behaviour, the present study tested acute effects of 40 mg cortisol on motivated decision making in 30 healthy young men.
Results: Results showed that cortisol indeed increased risky decision making, as predicted. This effect occurred for decisions where making a risky choice could potentially yield a big reward. These results are discussed with respect to currently proposed mechanisms for cortisol's potential anxiolytic effect and GCs' involvement in reward systems.