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Paradoxical effects of nitrous oxide on human memory

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Using the method of adjusted learning, subjects learned number-noun pairs while breathing either placebo or 30% nitrous oxide. Subjects breathing nitrous oxide required more acquisition trials to attain a learning criterion than did subjects breathing placebo. Two weeks later, half of the subjects from each group were administered either placebo or nitrous oxide and were asked to recall the noun that had accompanied each number cue. Results showed that: 1) nitrous oxide inhalation can decrease the accessibility of to-be-recalled material and 2) nitrous oxide administered during the acquisition of material can paradoxically improve the recall of that material 2 weeks later. The additional number of acquisition trials subjects received during nitrous oxide inhalation could potentially account for this paradoxical enhancement of delayed recall; however, correlational analyses suggest this was not the case. No evidence for any state-dependent effects of nitrous oxide on cued recall were found.

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Author information

Correspondence to Douglas S. Ramsay.

Additional information

This investigation was supported by NIH grants DE 00161, DE 07150, and RR 05346 with additional support from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute of the University of Washington.

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Ramsay, D.S., Leonesio, R.J., Whitney, C.W. et al. Paradoxical effects of nitrous oxide on human memory. Psychopharmacology 106, 370–374 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02245420

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Key words

  • Nitrous oxide
  • State-dependent learning
  • Retrieval
  • Memory