Cortisol and Memory Retrieval in Humans: Influence of Emotional Valence


Address for correspondence: Oliver T. Wolf, PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Duesseldorf, Universitaetsstrasse 1, D- 40225 Duesseldorf, Germany. Voice: +49-211-81-11779; fax: +49-211-81-12019.


Abstract: Glucocorticoids secreted in response to stress modulate memory in animals and humans. Studies in rodents suggest that glucocorticoids enhance memory consolidation but impair delayed retrieval. Similar negative effects on memory retrieval have been reported in humans. The human studies so far have not addressed the issue of emotional valence, which conceivably could modulate the effects of cortisol on retrieval. The present mini-review discusses two recent studies from our laboratories that investigate the influence of emotional valence on the retrieval-impairing effects of cortisol. Both studies observed that cortisol impaired retrieval and that emotional valence influenced these effects. For autobiographical memory the impairing effects were stronger for neutral than for emotional items, whereas for word retrieval the opposite pattern was observed (stronger effects on emotional words). Possible reasons for these results are the different memory domains tested as well as the different sex of the subjects. Future studies will address these issues, which are of relevance for psychiatric disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder or major depression.