Memory under stress: from single systems to network changes

Eur J Neurosci. 2017 Feb;45(4):478-489. doi: 10.1111/ejn.13478. Epub 2016 Nov 25.


Stressful events have profound effects on learning and memory. These effects are mainly mediated by catecholamines and glucocorticoid hormones released from the adrenals during stressful encounters. It has been known for long that both catecholamines and glucocorticoids influence the functioning of the hippocampus, a critical hub for episodic memory. However, areas implicated in other forms of memory, such as the insula or the dorsal striatum, can be affected by stress as well. Beyond changes in single memory systems, acute stress triggers the reconfiguration of large scale neural networks which sets the stage for a shift from thoughtful, 'cognitive' control of learning and memory toward more reflexive, 'habitual' processes. Stress-related alterations in amygdala connectivity with the hippocampus, dorsal striatum, and prefrontal cortex seem to play a key role in this shift. The bias toward systems proficient in threat processing and the implementation of well-established routines may facilitate coping with an acute stressor. Overreliance on these reflexive systems or the inability to shift flexibly between them, however, may represent a risk factor for psychopathology in the long-run.

Keywords: dorsal striatum; glucocorticoids; hippocampus; multiple memory systems; noradrenaline; prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Connectome
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Memory*
  • Stress, Psychological / physiopathology*