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Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Apr;1369(1):55-75. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12996. Epub 2016 Jan 21.

Acute stress and episodic memory retrieval: neurobiological mechanisms and behavioral consequences.

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Department of Psychology.
Neurosciences Program, Stanford University, Stanford, California.


Episodic retrieval allows people to access memories from the past to guide current thoughts and decisions. In many real-world situations, retrieval occurs under conditions of acute stress, either elicited by the retrieval task or driven by other, unrelated concerns. Memory under such conditions may be hindered, as acute stress initiates a cascade of neuromodulatory changes that can impair episodic retrieval. Here, we review emerging evidence showing that dissociable stress systems interact over time, influencing neural function. In addition to the adverse effects of stress on hippocampal-dependent retrieval, we consider how stress biases attention and prefrontal cortical function, which could further affect controlled retrieval processes. Finally, we consider recent data indicating that stress at retrieval increases activity in a network of brain regions that enable reflexive, rapid responding to upcoming threats, while transiently taking offline regions supporting flexible, goal-directed thinking. Given the ubiquity of episodic memory retrieval in everyday life, it is critical to understand the theoretical and applied implications of acute stress. The present review highlights the progress that has been made, along with important open questions.


anxiety; declarative memory; hippocampus; medial temporal lobe; prefrontal cortex

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