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The Effects of Cortisol on Learning and Memory.

 C. L. Cheatham, P. J. Jennings and E. A Van Kirk

High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, may interfere with the normal hippocampal function that is crucial for learning and memory. This study examined the relationship between salivary cortisol levels and learning and recall performance on a verbal paired associates task. Twenty women (mean age 23.6 years) completed two learning sessions and one recall session, each separated by approximately 2 weeks. In Sessions 1 and 2, participants were given 10 blocks of training on the paired associates task. The measure of learning was the number of blocks to reach 100% accuracy. In Session 3, the participants were asked to recall the word pairs without review. The measure of recall was the number of correct responses. Salivary cortisol samples were collected and assayed using radioimmunoassay. Cortisol levels were not associated with the number of blocks to reach criterion in Sessions 1 and 2 (n=18, Spearman rs < .11, ps > .33). High mean cortisol levels during learning and at the time of recall, however, were associated with lower recall scores in Session 3 (n=18, Spearman r=-.468, p=.025, and r=-.413, p=.044, respectively). The effects of high cortisol while performing a verbal paired associates task may have been to interfere with long-term memory, while leaving immediate learning abilities intact.


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