Substance abuse, memory, and post-traumatic stress disorder

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2014 Jul;112:87-100. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2013.12.002. Epub 2013 Dec 15.


A large body of literature demonstrates the effects of abused substances on memory. These effects differ depending on the drug, the pattern of delivery (acute or chronic), and the drug state at the time of learning or assessment. Substance use disorders involving these drugs are often comorbid with anxiety disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When the cognitive effects of these drugs are considered in the context of the treatment of these disorders, it becomes clear that these drugs may play a deleterious role in the development, maintenance, and treatment of PTSD. In this review, we examine the literature evaluating the cognitive effects of three commonly abused drugs: nicotine, cocaine, and alcohol. These three drugs operate through both common and distinct neurobiological mechanisms and alter learning and memory in multiple ways. We consider how the cognitive and affective effects of these drugs interact with the acquisition, consolidation, and extinction of learned fear, and we discuss the potential impediments that substance abuse creates for the treatment of PTSD.

Keywords: Amygdala; Consolidation; Extinction; Hippocampus; Prefrontal cortex; Reconsolidation; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cocaine / adverse effects
  • Cocaine / pharmacology*
  • Conditioning, Psychological / drug effects
  • Conditioning, Psychological / physiology*
  • Ethanol / adverse effects
  • Ethanol / pharmacology*
  • Fear / drug effects
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Nicotine / adverse effects
  • Nicotine / pharmacology*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / physiopathology*


  • Ethanol
  • Nicotine
  • Cocaine