Opposing effects of cortisol on learning and memory in children using spatial versus response-dependent navigation strategies

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2020 Mar;169:107172. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2020.107172. Epub 2020 Jan 21.


Previous studies showed that healthy young adults who spontaneously use caudate nucleus-dependent strategies on a virtual navigation task, have significantly lower basal levels of cortisol compared with adults who use hippocampus-dependent spatial navigation strategies. In the current paper, we assessed the relation between basal cortisol levels and learning using a virtual navigation task in children. We show that basal cortisol level has a differential effect on learning and memory between children using spatial and response navigation strategies. Specifically, cortisol was found to be beneficial for learning performance in children using spatial strategies, such that higher levels of cortisol were associated with more efficient learning in a virtual maze. In contrast, cortisol had a deleterious effect on learning the virtual maze in children using response strategies, such that higher cortisol levels were associated with increased spatial working memory errors. Based on these results, individual differences in navigation strategy could help explain contradictory results in the literature showing that cortisol can have either a positive or negative association with learning and memory performance.

Keywords: Caudate nucleus; Children; Cortisol; Hippocampus; Memory; Navigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Caudate Nucleus / physiology
  • Child
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / physiology*
  • Male
  • Maze Learning / physiology*
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Spatial Memory / physiology*
  • Spatial Navigation / physiology*


  • Hydrocortisone

Grant support