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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2003 Oct;28(7):941-8.

Attentionally modulated effects of cortisol and mood on memory for emotional faces in healthy young males.

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Affective Neuroscience Section, Helmholtz Institute, Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 2, 3584 CS Utrecht, The Netherlands.


Heightened cortisol levels due to stress or acute administration seem to enhance memory for emotional material, independently of emotional valence. An arousal-driven neurobiological mechanism involving the amygdala has been proposed. The relation between pre-task salivary measures of cortisol (by convention named 'basal levels') and emotionally modulated memory has not been investigated yet. Given the association between higher basal levels of cortisol and indices of low mood, valence-specific effects on emotionally modulated memory could be expected (e.g. mood-congruent or stimulus-specific forms of processing). This study was designed to investigate the relationship between basal levels of salivary cortisol, self-reported mood and spatial memory for neutral, happy and angry facial expressions in healthy young volunteers (N=31). Memory performance was indexed using a modified version of a computerized object-relocation task, using emotional facial expressions as stimuli. Results showed a significant relation between cortisol and depressive mood. More importantly, both the levels of cortisol and depressive mood were inversely related to the memory performance for the happy facial expressions, while a similar relationship between cortisol and memory performance on angry faces neared significance. An explanation in terms of the down-regulation of social behavior by elevated basal cortisol levels is postulated.

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