Positive modulation of a neutral declarative memory by a threatening social event

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2015 Dec;126:56-66. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2015.10.011. Epub 2015 Nov 7.


Memories can be altered by negative or arousing experiences due to the activation of the stress-responsive sympatho-adrenal-medullary axis (SYM). Here, we used a neutral declarative memory that was acquired during multi-trial training to determine the effect of a threatening event on memory without emotional valence. To this end, participants received a new threatening social protocol before learning pairs of meaningless syllables and were tested either 15 min, 2 days or 8 days after acquisition. We first demonstrated that this threatening social situation activates not only the SYM axis (Experiment 1) and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA; Experiment 2), but also, it improves the acquisition or early consolidation of the syllable pairs (Experiment 3). This improvement is not a transient effect; it can be observed after the memory is consolidated. Furthermore, this modulation increases the persistence of memory (Experiment 4). Thus, it is possible to affect memories with specific events that contain unrelated content and a different valence.

Keywords: Autonomic nervous system; Memory improvement; Memory persistence; Neutral declarative memory; Pre-learning stress; Psychosocial stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Blood Pressure
  • Female
  • Heart Rate
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology*
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Pituitary-Adrenal System / physiology*
  • Speech
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Hydrocortisone