BACKGROUND: The inability to store fearful memories into their original encoding context is considered to be an important vulnerability factor for the development of anxiety disorders like posttraumatic stress disorder. Altered memory contextualization most likely involves effects of the stress hormone cortisol, acting via receptors located in the memory neurocircuitry. Cortisol via these receptors induces rapid nongenomic effects followed by slower genomic effects, which are thought to modulate cognitive function in opposite, complementary ways. Here, we targeted these time-dependent effects of cortisol during memory encoding and tested subsequent contextualization of emotional and neutral memories. METHODS: In a double-blind, placebo-controlled design, 64 men were randomly assigned to one of three groups: 1) received 10 mg hydrocortisone 30 minutes (rapid cortisol effects) before a memory encoding task; 2) received 10 mg hydrocortisone 210 minutes (slow cortisol) before a memory encoding task; or 3) received placebo at both times. During encoding, participants were presented with neutral and emotional words in unique background pictures. Approximately 24 hours later, context dependency of their memories was assessed. RESULTS: Recognition data revealed that cortisol's rapid effects impair emotional memory contextualization, while cortisol's slow effects enhance it. Neutral memory contextualization remained unaltered by cortisol, irrespective of the timing of the drug. CONCLUSIONS: This study shows distinct time-dependent effects of cortisol on the contextualization of specifically emotional memories. The results suggest that rapid effects of cortisol may lead to impaired emotional memory contextualization, while slow effects of cortisol may confer protection against emotional memory generalization.
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