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Hippocampus. 2017 Jan;27(1):77-88. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22674. Epub 2016 Nov 8.

Stress as a mnemonic filter: Interactions between medial temporal lobe encoding processes and post-encoding stress.

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Department of Psychology, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
Center for Neuroscience, University of California, Davis, California.
Department of Psychology, University of California, Davis, California.


Acute stress has been shown to modulate memory for recently learned information, an effect attributed to the influence of stress hormones on medial temporal lobe (MTL) consolidation processes. However, little is known about which memories will be affected when stress follows encoding. One possibility is that stress interacts with encoding processes to selectively protect memories that had elicited responses in the hippocampus and amygdala, two MTL structures important for memory formation. There is limited evidence for interactions between encoding processes and consolidation effects in humans, but recent studies of consolidation in rodents have emphasized the importance of encoding "tags" for determining the impact of consolidation manipulations on memory. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging in humans to test the hypothesis that the effects of post-encoding stress depend on MTL processes observed during encoding. We found that changes in stress hormone levels were associated with an increase in the contingency of memory outcomes on hippocampal and amygdala encoding responses. That is, for participants showing high cortisol reactivity, memories became more dependent on MTL activity observed during encoding, thereby shifting the distribution of recollected events toward those that had elicited relatively high activation. Surprisingly, this effect was generally larger for neutral, compared to emotionally negative, memories. The results suggest that stress does not uniformly enhance memory, but instead selectively preserves memories tagged during encoding, effectively acting as mnemonic filter.


emotional memory; functional magnetic resonance imaging; stress

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