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Impact of Stress and Glucocorticoids on Schema-Based Learning.

TitleImpact of Stress and Glucocorticoids on Schema-Based Learning.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsKluen, L. Marieke, Nixon P., Agorastos A., Wiedemann K., & Schwabe L.
Date Published2017 May
KeywordsAdrenergic alpha-2 Receptor Antagonists, Adult, Cognitive Dysfunction, Female, Glucocorticoids, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Learning, Male, Stress, Psychological, Yohimbine, Young Adult

Pre-existing knowledge, a 'schema', facilitates the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of schema-relevant information. Such schema-based memory is key to every form of education and provides intriguing insights into the integration of new information and prior knowledge. Stress is known to have a critical impact on memory processes, mainly through the action of glucocorticoids and catecholamines. However, whether stress and these major stress mediators affect schema-based learning is completely unknown. To address this question, we performed two experiments, in which participants acquired a schema on day 1 and learned schema-related as well as schema-unrelated information on day 2. In the first experiment, participants underwent a stress or control manipulation either immediately or about 25 min before schema-based memory testing. The second experiment tested whether glucocorticoid and/or noradrenergic activation is sufficient to modulate schema-based memory. To this end, participants received orally a placebo, hydrocortisone, the α2-adrenoceptor-antagonist yohimbine, leading to increased noradrenergic stimulation, or both drugs, before completing the schema-based memory test. Our data indicate that stress, irrespective of the exact timing of the stress exposure, impaired schema-based learning, while leaving learning of schema-unrelated information intact. A very similar effect was obtained after hydrocortisone, but not yohimbine, administration. These data show that stress disrupts participants' ability to benefit from prior knowledge during learning and that glucocorticoid activation is sufficient to produce this effect. Our findings provide novel insights into the impact of stress and stress hormones on the dynamics of human memory and have important practical implications, specifically for educational contexts.

Alternate JournalNeuropsychopharmacology
PubMed ID27841278
PubMed Central IDPMC5437883


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