RATIONALE: Propranolol is found to reduce physiological hyper-responsiveness in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), possibly by affecting reconsolidation after the reactivation of traumatic memories. Cortisol is found to attenuate declarative memory retrieval, but it is unknown whether it also reduces physiological responses to emotional memories. OBJECTIVES: To examine whether the effects of propranolol on physiological responding to emotional memories can also be found in healthy controls and to investigate the immediate and prolonged effects of cortisol on physiological responding to emotional memories, we tested these effects in 79 healthy young men. MATERIALS AND METHODS: After preparing a script of a negative disturbing memory, participants were instructed to imagine this event 1 week later after ingestion of either 35 mg cortisol, 80 mg propranolol, or a placebo. Physiological responding to the script-driven imagery was recorded. Another week later, after washout, the imagery was repeated again. During all three sessions as well as 8 months later, subjective emotional reactions to the memories were assessed. RESULTS: The emotionality of the memories was reduced over time, which was not affected by the treatments, however. The personal emotional script did evoke higher skin conductance responses than a neutral story, which decreased 1 week later, but no effects were found of either propranolol or cortisol on this responsiveness. CONCLUSIONS: Whereas healthy males do show psychophysiological responding to personal emotional scripts, the effects of cortisol and propranolol on physiological responses to emotional memories might be specific to clinical groups characterized by hyper-responsiveness, like PTSD. Future studies using longer-acting doses and more elaborate reactivation procedures in both healthy men and women could shed more light on the effects of cortisol and propranolol on psychophysiological responding to emotional memories.
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