Stress and corticosteroid hormones are known to affect learning and memory processes. In this study, we examined whether stress and corticosteroids are capable of facilitating the switch between multiple memory systems in mice. For this purpose, we designed a task that allowed measurement of nucleus caudate-based stimulus–response and hippocampus-based spatial learning strategies. Naive mice used spatial strategies to locate an exit hole on a circular hole board at a fixed location flagged by a proximal stimulus. When the mice were either stressed or administered corticosterone before the task, 30–50% of the mice switched to a stimulus–response strategy. This switch between learning strategies was accompanied by a rescue of performance, whereas performance declined in the stressed mice that kept using the spatial strategy. Pretreatment with a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist prevented the switch toward the stimulus–response strategy but led to deterioration of hippocampus-dependent performance. These findings (i) show that corticosteroids promote the transition from spatial to stimulus–response memory systems, (ii) provide evidence that the mineralocorticoid receptor underlies this corticosteroid-mediated switch, and (iii) suggest that a stress-induced switch from hippocampus-based to nucleus caudate-based memory systems can rescue performance.

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