Cortisol response mediates the effect of post-reactivation stress exposure on contextualization of emotional memories
Bos, Marieke G. N × Jacobs van Goethem, Tessa H Beckers, Tom Kindt, Merel #
Psychoneuroendocrinology vol:50 pages:72-84
Retrieval of traumatic experiences is often accompanied by strong feelings of distress. Here, we examined in healthy participants whether post-reactivation stress experience affects the context-dependency of emotional memory. First, participants studied words from two distinctive emotional categories (i.e., war and disease) presented against a category-related background picture. One day later, participants returned to the lab and received a reminder of the words of one emotional category followed by exposure to a stress task (Stress group, n = 22) or a control task (Control group, n = 24). Six days later, memory contextualization was tested using a word stem completion task. Half of the word stems were presented against the encoding context (i.e., congruent context) and the other half of the word stems were presented against the other context (i.e., incongruent context). The results showed that participants recalled more words in the congruent context than in the incongruent context. Interestingly, cortisol mediated the effect of stress exposure on memory contextualization. The stronger the post-reactivation cortisol response, the more memory performance relied on the contextual embedding of the words. Taken together, the current findings suggest that a moderate cortisol response after memory reactivation might serve an adaptive function in preventing generalization of emotional memories over contexts.