True or false? Memory is differentially affected by stress-induced cortisol elevations and sympathetic activity at consolidation and retrieval

T. Smeets*, H.P. Otgaar, I.E.L. Candel, O.T. Wolf

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

217 Citations (Web of Science)


Adrenal stress hormones released in response to acute stress may yield memory-enhancing effects when released post-learning and impairing effects at memory retrieval, especially for emotional memory material. However, so far these differential effects of stress hormones on the various memory phases for neutral and emotional memory material have not been demonstrated within one experiment. This study investigated whether, in line with their effects on true memory, stress and stress-induced adrenal stress hormones affect the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of emotional and neutral false memories. Participants (N = 90) were exposed to a stressor before encoding, during consolidation, before retrieval, or were not stressed and then were subjected to neutral and emotional versions of the Deese-Roediger-McDermott word list learning paradigm. Twenty-four hours later, recall of presented words (true recall) and non-presented critical lure words (false recall) was assessed. Results show that stress exposure resulted in superior true memory performance in the consolidation stress group and reduced true memory performance in the retrieval stress group compared to the other groups, predominantly for emotional words. These memory-enhancing and memory-impairing effects were strongly related to stress-induced cortisol and sympathetic activity measured via salivary alpha-amylase levels. Neutral and emotional false recall, on the other hand, was neither affected by stress exposure, nor related to cortisol and sympathetic activity following stress. These results demonstrate the importance of stress-induced hormone-related activity in enhancing memory consolidation and in impairing memory retrieval, in particular for emotional memory material.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1378-1386
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2008

Cite this