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J Neuroendocrinol. 2017 Dec;29(12). doi: 10.1111/jne.12544.

Stress-related cortisol responsivity modulates prospective memory.

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Neurobiology and Genetics of Behavior, Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy, Centre for Biomedical Education and Research (ZBAF), Witten/Herdecke University, Witten, Germany.


It is known that there is inter-individual variation in behavioural and physiological stress reactions to the same stressor. The present study aimed to examine the impact of cortisol responsivity on performance in a complex real life-like prospective memory (PM) paradigm by a re-analysis of data published previously, with a focus on the taxonomy of cognitive dimensions of PM. Twenty-one male subjects were stressed with the Socially Evaluated Cold Pressor Test (SECPT) before the planning of intentions. Another group of 20 males underwent a control procedure. Salivary cortisol was measured to assess the intensity of the biological stress response. Additionally, participants rated the subjective experience of stress on a 5-point rating scale. Stressed participants were post-hoc differentiated in high (n = 11) and low cortisol responders (n = 10). Cortisol niveau differed significantly between the two groups, whereas subjective stress ratings did not. PM performance of low cortisol responders was stable across time and the PM performance of controls declined. High cortisol responders showed a nominally weaker PM retrieval across the early trails and significantly improved only on the last trial. The data demonstrate for the first time that participants with a low cortisol responsivity may benefit from stress exposure before the planning phase of PM. PM performance of high cortisol responders shows a more inconsistent pattern, which may be interpreted in the sense of a recency effect in PM retrieval. Alternatively, high cortisol responses may have a deteriorating effect on PM retrieval, which disappeared on the last trials of the task as a result of the decrease of cortisol levels across time. Importantly, the data also demonstrate that the intensity of cortisol responses does not necessarily correspond to the intensity of the mental experience of stress.


high cortisol responder; hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis; laboratory stressor; low cortisol responder; prospective memory; salivary cortisol

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