Stress modulates the use of spatial versus stimulus-response learning strategies in humans

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Learn Mem, Volume 14, Number 1, p.109-116 (2007)

DOI Name (links to online publication)



Animal; Female; Heart; Heart Rate; Human; Humans; Learning; Male; Memory; MODEL; physiology; Stress; SYSTEM


Animal studies provided evidence that stress modulates multiple memory systems, favoring caudate nucleus-based "habit" memory over hippocampus-based "cognitive" memory. However, effects of stress on learning strategy and memory consolidation were not differentiated. We specifically address the effects of psychosocial stress on the applied learning strategy in humans. We designed a spatial learning task that allowed differentiating spatial from stimulus-response learning strategies during acquisition. In 13 subsequent trials, participants (88 male and female students) had to locate a "win" card out of four placed at a fixed location in a 3D model of a room. Relocating one cue in the last trial allowed inferring the applied learning strategy. Half of them participated first in the "Trier Social Stress Test." Salivary cortisol and heart rate measurements were taken. Stressed participants used a stimulus-response strategy significantly more often than controls. Subsequent verbal report revealed that spatial learners had a more complete awareness of response options than stimulus-response learners. Importantly, learning performance was not affected by stress. Taken together, stress prior to learning facilitated simple stimulus-response learning strategies in humans-at the expense of a more cognitive learning strategy. Depending on the context, we consider this as an adaptive response