Determining Cortisol's Influence on Memory Requires Future Research

Author:  Beau Andrew Alward
Institution:  University of California, Davis

The glucocorticoid (GC) known as cortisol is secreted from the adrenal gland when someone is exposed to stress from their internal or external environment. Cortisol modulates various physiological functions during stress to help one adapt; however, it also has an effect on cognitive functions. One cognitive function affected by cortisol, with an increasing interest among scientists, is memory. Various experiments conducted with the goal in mind of finding cortisol's effect on memory, yield contradictory results. Some of the experiments show that cortisol weakens a person's ability to retrieve emotional memory, and enhances their ability to retrieve neutral (Kuhlmann et al., (2005); Tollenaar et al., (2008). Others show cortisol enhances a person's ability to retrieve emotional memory, and impairs their ability to retrieve neutral (M. Jelicic et al., (2004); P. Putman et al., (2004). This review paper focuses on analyzing these experiments and their results, to help expose methodological flaws and, as a consequence, give insight on how to improve future experiments to achieve more valid results. This collective analysis further corroborates the complex functioning of cortisol and how it affects one's ability to recall information of varying emotional valence while undergoing different levels of stress.