Stress is ubiquitous in modern life and exerts profound effects on cognitive and emotional functions. Thus, whereas acute stress enhances memory, longer episodes exert negative effects through as yet unresolved mechanisms. We report a novel, hippocampus-intrinsic mechanism for the selective memory defects that are provoked by stress. CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone), a peptide released from hippocampal neurons during stress, depressed synaptic transmission, blocked activity-induced polymerization of spine actin and impaired synaptic plasticity in adult hippocampal slices. Live, multiphoton imaging demonstrated a selective vulnerability of thin dendritic spines to this stress hormone, resulting in depletion of small, potentiation-ready excitatory synapses. The underlying molecular mechanisms required activation and signaling of the actin-regulating small GTPase, RhoA. These results implicate the selective loss of dendritic spine sub-populations as a novel structural and functional foundation for the clinically important effects of stress on cognitive and emotional processes.