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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Stress and cognition

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Abstract Stress can affect cognition in many ways, with the outcome (i.e., facilitating or impairing) depending on a combination of factors related to both stress and the cognitive function under study. Among the factors identified as particularly relevant to define the cognitive effects of stress are the intensity or magnitude of stress, its origin (i.e., whether triggered by the task or externally), and its duration (i.e., whether acute or chronically delivered). At the cognitive end, the specific cognitive operation (e.g., implicit or explicit memory, long‐term or working memory, goal‐directed or habit learning) and information processing phases (e.g., learning, consolidation, and retrieval) are essential as well to define stress effects. The emerging view is that mild stress tends to facilitate cognitive function, particularly in implicit memory or simple declarative tasks or when the cognitive load is not excessive. Exposure to high or very high stress acutely (whether elicited by the cognitive task or experienced before being trained or tested in the task) or chronically impairs the formation of explicit memories and, more generally, of those that require complex, flexible reasoning (as typically observed for hippocampus‐ and prefrontal cortex‐related functions) while improving performance of implicit memory and well‐rehearsed tasks (as reported for amygdala‐dependent conditioning tasks and for striatum‐related processes). In addition to these general principles, there are important individual differences in the cognitive impact of stress, with gender and age being particularly influencing factors. WIREs Cogn Sci 2013, 4:245–261. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1222 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Brain Function and Dysfunction

Scheme depicting the relevant factors related to both stress and cognition that account for the cognitive outcome of stress. Developmental age and individual factors will also influence the outcome of the interaction between stress and cognitive factors.

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Scheme showing the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic stress in different memory types. (a) Intrinsic stress that occurs within the training task tends to induce a linear facilitation of implicit memory. Further stress—extrinsic—given either before or after training in implicit tasks exerts a facilitating effect, shifting the memory function to the left. (b) The relationship between intrinsic stress and the formation of explicit memories tends to follow an inverted‐U‐shape, with low and high stress levels triggered by the task leading to worse performance than intermediate stress levels. When extrinsic stress is experienced before or after training, there is a shift of the memory curve to the left and downward, the most consistent effect being for high extrinsic stress impairing explicit memories. The same impairing effect is observed for explicit memory retrieval and for prefrontal cortex‐dependent memory functions.

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Scheme showing the roulette metaphor for different combinatorial possibilities occurring in the intersection between specific stress conditions and cognitive processing and defined by the elements inserted in each box. (a) Elements in the insert include a constellation of factors exemplifying conditions in which an acute, medium intensity stressor is acutely triggered by an implicit memory task and elevated during the consolidation period—according to the literature, this constellation will typically lead to improved memory as compared to lower stress conditions. (b) The constellations of elements here include a chronic stress situation of high intensity experienced before individuals are exposed to the retrieval of an explicit memory task—according to the literature, the expected results in this case will be impaired retrieval as compared to a nonstress condition.

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Psychology > Brain Function and Dysfunction

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