Post-encoding stress enhances mnemonic discrimination of negative stimuli

Tony J. Cunningham, Stephanie L. Leal, Michael A. Yassa, Jessica D. Payne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Stress influences how we remember emotional events and how these events shape future behaviors. However, the impact of stress on memory specificity for emotional events has yet to be examined. To this end, the present study utilized a mnemonic discrimination task that taxes hippocampal pattern separation, the process of distinguishing between overlapping experiences, thereby allowing us to better understand the mechanisms by which stress affects GIST versus detail memory of emotional events. Participants encoded scenes composed of negative or neutral objects placed on neutral backgrounds and then underwent a psychosocial stressor or matched control task. Twenty-four hours later during testing, objects were presented separately, with some identical old objects (targets), some new objects (foils), and some similar but not identical objects (lures). Target recognition was enhanced for negative compared to neutral objects in both the stress and control groups. Interestingly, post-encoding stress selectively enhanced mnemonic discrimination of negative versus neutral objects, which was not the case in the control group. Measures of salivary cortisol revealed a quadratic inverted U relationship between negative mnemonic discrimination and cortisol increase. These findings suggest that moderate cortisol release following stress is associated with enhanced memory precision for negative information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-619
Number of pages9
JournalLearning and Memory
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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