Stress impairs intentional memory control through altered theta oscillations in lateral parietal cortex

C W E M Quaedflieg*, Teresa Schneider, J Daume, A K Engel, L Schwabe*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Accumulating evidence suggests that forgetting is not necessarily a passive process but that we can, to some extent, actively control what we remember and what we forget. Although this intentional control of memory has potentially far-reaching implications, the factors that influence our capacity to intentionally control our memory are largely unknown. Here, we tested whether acute stress may disrupt the intentional control of memory and, if so, through which neural mechanism. We exposed healthy men and women to a stress (n=27) or control (n=26) procedure before they aimed repeatedly to retrieve some previously learned cue-target pairs and to actively suppress others. While control participants showed reduced memory for supressed compared to baseline pairs in a subsequent memory test, this suppression-induced forgetting was completely abolished after stress. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), we show that the reduced ability to suppress memories after stress is associated with altered theta activity in the inferior temporal cortex when the control process (retrieval or suppression) is triggered and in the lateral parietal cortex when control is exerted, with the latter being directly correlated with the stress hormone cortisol. Moreover, the suppression-induced forgetting was linked to altered connectivity between the hippocampus and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which in turn was negatively correlated to stress-induced cortisol increases. These findings provide novel insights into conditions under which our capacity to actively control our memory breaks down and may have considerable implications for stress-related psychopathologies, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, that are characterized by unwanted memories of distressing events.Significance Statement: It is typically assumed that forgetting is a passive process that can hardly be controlled. There is, however, evidence that we may actively control, to some extent, what we remember and what we forget. This intentional memory control has considerable implications for mental disorders in which patients suffer from unwanted (e.g., traumatic) memories. Here, we demonstrate that the capacity to intentionally control our memory breaks down after stress. Using magnetoencephalography, we show that this stress-induced memory control deficit is linked to altered activity in the lateral parietal cortex and the connectivity between the hippocampus and right prefrontal cortex. These findings provide novel insights into conditions under which memory control fails and are highly relevant in the context of stress-related psychopathologies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7739-7748
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number40
Early online date31 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Sep 2020


  • cortisol
  • memory
  • memory suppression
  • stress
  • theta

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