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Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2007 Jan;87(1):57-66. Epub 2006 Aug 1.

Endogenous cortisol level interacts with noradrenergic activation in the human amygdala.

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  • 1University of Amsterdam, Department of Clinical Psychology and Cognitive Science Center, Roetersstraat 15, 1018 WB Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Animal studies show that high cortisol levels exert their effect on stressful task performance via modulation of the amygdala. Availability of noradrenaline in this brain region appears to be a critical prerequisite for this effect. This relationship between noradrenaline and cortisol is explained by an animal model where the amygdala constitutes a crucial region for this interaction. In humans this model has not been extensively tested so far. In a previously reported study human subjects (aged 20.93+/-2.38) were scanned using fMRI when watching sets of emotional and neutral pictures after taking the beta-adrenergic antagonist propranolol or placebo. Stimulus sets consisted of 92 pictures, divided in four emotional categories that ranged from neutral scenes of domestic objects (CAT1) to extremely negative scenes of mutilation or accidents (CAT4). Confrontation with arousing emotional pictures, accompanied by increased noradrenaline levels, evoked increased amygdala activation under placebo but not under betablocker condition. This new and additional analysis of this data set was carried out to determine the effect of differential endogenous cortisol levels on amygdala activation. Cortisol levels during scanning were determined using salivary samples and subjects were post hoc divided in a High (n=14) and Low cortisol group (n=14). When subjects were watching emotional stimuli, presumably associated with enhanced noradrenaline (NA) levels, amygdala activation was contrasted between the two cortisol groups. We hypothesized that emotional stimuli would elicit more amygdala activation in the High than in the Low cortisol group. Here we demonstrate indeed a significant interaction effect of the endogenous cortisol level with increasing activation in the amygdala under placebo but not under betablocker condition, thereby extending the rodent based model of a synergistic effect of the two stress hormones to the human.

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