, Volume 183, Issue 1, pp 65-71
Date: 17 Aug 2005

Cortisol and memory retrieval in women: influence of menstrual cycle and oral contraceptives

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Studies in rodents observed that the effects of stress on memory are modulated by gonadal hormones. In animals and humans, stress and cortisol treatment impairs memory retrieval.


To investigate if the acute impairing effect of cortisol on memory retrieval in women is influenced by endogenous or exogenous gonadal steroids.


Three groups of women were studied: women during mensis (n=13), women in the luteal phase (n=14), and women using oral contraceptives (OCs; n=20). In a double-blind crossover fashion, they received cortisol (30 mg) or placebo 1 h prior to memory retrieval testing.


Overall cortisol led to a significant impairment of memory retrieval. Further exploratory analysis using t tests showed that both groups of naturally cycling women were significantly impaired (p<0.05), while no effect was apparent in the OC users (p=0.29).


The current results could suggest that OC use is associated with a reduced sensitivity of the brain to acute cortisol elevations. In contrast, menstrual-cycle-associated changes in estradiol and progesterone concentrations appear to have no strong influence on this acute cortisol effect. The underlying neurobiological mechanisms of these behavioral findings remain to be elucidated.